THE KING’S WARRIOR

By: Charles Dowdy

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From the book of Dore' al Touth:

...and the warm breezes from the South shall make passable the Great Sea of Ice once again, allowing a rapid thaw to passions and grievances that men had long forgotten. This great human annihilation, should it occur, will release the Bon'dun raiders from beyond the Ma'Arten Mountains , and they will scavenge the battlefields, claiming the souls of the unworthy. Meanwhile, within the great human struggle, will be two warriors, each representing the last of their order. One is destined to walk a path of light, and the other a path of darkness. One must die at the hands of the other. It is decreed that as their struggle goes, so goes the fate of man.”

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CHAPTER 1

It was the hilt of the sword that caught the thief’s attention. Rubies were inset in a slender gold arch on either side of the handle, forging the kind of beauty that gave pause to this thief’s heart. Nothing else about the stranger stood out from the rest of the inn’s crowd. Other than his darting, icy blue eyes, the stranger seemed as saddle weary as the rest of the bunch. His drab cloak, plain, mud covered boots and tangled, matted black hair were not in step with the ornate weapon partially shielded by his clothing, or with the dank, dark inn, for that matter. From the corner of the smoky room, the thief, Lissa Arethaddle, took a renewed interest in the evening. The mindless banter continued around her. To the untrained eye, Lissa was engaged, participating, saying things that would have her mates rolling with laughter. But Lissa was watching the stranger as he made his way to the bar and ordered a drink. As only a careful thief can, she took note of details others would miss: the confidence in the stranger’s step, the way a space seemed to open for him at the crowded bar, the surly bartender’s quick service, and, even more interesting, how others waiting for their drinks did not complain when this took place.

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Even though the stranger had never stepped foot in this inn, and Lissa was sure of that, this drunken bunch knew the type. The broad shoulders. The light and wary step. The cold eyes. Unknown riders were on the trails at night, and this was not a healthy time to question a mysterious newcomer. The stranger cast about the inn, nodding his head ever so slightly at the few who met his gaze. Then the stranger’s steel blue eyes settled squarely on her. Just his gaze caused her stomach to drop – his look was that intense and discomforting to someone in her line of work. As a thief, her senses were more acute to the unusual; often her very life depended on her nimble observations. Lissa turned away even as her brain raced for an explanation. She quickly wrote it off as happenstance or curiosity. Even from across the dim room her delicate facial features would give her away as a woman. And a young one at that. The only other women in the inn were serving drinks. The stranger appeared to be a traveled man, the thief noted as she risked another glance in his direction. Maybe he wondered at her elvish look, not that many even knew what the word meant anymore, and those that did thought it nothing more than words of fancy used to put children to sleep at night. This outsider might know of the elves of old. Lissa pondered the stranger as one of her tablemates regaled the others with a bawdy tale. Perhaps the stranger’s direct eyes had only paused on her face as he recalled a childhood story about the elves as he sat on the lap of his own mother, long ago, somewhere far from this dark, drafty room.

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Perhaps the stranger saw something simpler, the thief thought. Lissa had only seen sixteen planting seasons, and looked even younger than her years. Perhaps the stranger wondered at the slim, young woman accepted as an equal among a rowdy table of men. It had not always been so. On her first visit to the inn, two burly men, with a little too much ale in their stomachs, decided to test the young, slightly built thief. In her own way, Lissa Arethaddle was a beautiful woman. She played with their predictable hunger and lured the louts outside the inn, where the darkness was her ally and a great equalizer. She made examples of them, while they stumbled and screamed. She had not been tested since. After one more long pull on his mug, the stranger left the drink on the bar and came their way. His face was strong and honest, save the wicked scar that ran from just below his left eye to his chin. He was older than the thief had surmised at first glance. Much older, and the age marked his rugged face like the ground churned beneath a hard charging horse. Despite her momentary hesitation at the stranger’s intense gaze, Lissa began to feel the excitement of the hunt. And yet he was the one who seemed to be coming toward her. Their eyes were openly locked now – she on the one who seemed to be bearing in on her, and he on the one whom he seemed to have spent much effort finding. That can’t be right, the thief thought as one of her hands slipped below the table and withdrew a knife from her boot, holding it there should it be needed.

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She thought back to the last few weeks, to the villages she had visited, to the houses she had robbed. Had there been one among them who could hire such a man? Had there ever been such a house? There had not. Still, her assessment continued to evolve. Streaks of gray ran through his hair. Father Time was betraying this man’s build and stance. This stranger will not be traipsing around the countryside alone much longer, she thought. Not if he wants to stay alive. Perhaps she would have that blade after all. “Lissa Arethaddle,” the stranger said as he approached the table. Her mouth dropped open and her heart started to pound. How could anyone know her given name? This was not the name these men knew her by. Their banter stopped, and all heads turned toward the stranger, waiting for explanation. The thief decided not to answer the stranger; not trusting the voice that suddenly lurked in the back of her throat. Her hand tightened on the hilt of the small blade. From such a distance, she knew she would have no problem burying the gleaming blade in his neck. The stranger withdrew a small sack from his belt and threw it on the table. There was the unmistakable chink of coin as the sack landed. “I have need of your services, Lissa Arethaddle,” the stranger said. “There will be more when we are done.” “Her?” One of the drunks laughed. “Are you daft, man? Taking her into the night? She’ll slit your throat before you have your leg over the saddle.”

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The others fell about themselves, finding as much humor from their drink as their words. The thief hefted the bag and did not respond to his invitation. Using two fingers to pry the bag open, she studied the contents as she thought. She was looking at more money than she would see in a year, maybe two. Why her? Why now? The man appeared to be alone, when men of rank or stature were rarely so. He was confident and carried a sword befitting royalty. His skin was bronzed by too much time in the sun. And, most disturbingly of all, he knew her real name and where to find her. That was what she could not get her mind around. How was that possible? Lissa threw the sack back at him; deftly, he reached and caught it. “What services, exactly, do you think you are buying?” she yelled. The men around fell out with laughter again. They were used to her quick tongue, which they had seen flash on other occasions when she had been approached by men, predictably wanting what all men seemed to want. “Would you like me to explain the services I seek,” the stranger said, setting the small purse in front of her again. “Here among your friends?” The thief wasn’t sure how much of her emotion she was controlling and how much was displayed on her face. There were some in the crowd who had guessed her profession. And there were some who knew nothing of it, a fact that usually meant she had profited from their ignorance. That was not something she wanted to confess. Suddenly, Lissa pointed at the stranger. “Are you a conjurer?”

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The rowdy corner of the room had been half watching this exchange; however, this question silenced not just the table, but also the entire inn. In tune with the room without bothering to look, the stranger shifted so that his back was to a post. His hand slipped casually beneath his cloak. “I prefer the sword,” the stranger said, his voice carrying in the sudden silence. “Nevertheless, I am versed in some of the ancient arts.” A murmuring swept through the crowd. The time of magic was long dead. He could be burned in the village square for such words. Lissa was surprised. Her question had been a shot in the dark, and the stranger had been a fool to respond as he had. Suddenly, she saw a way out of the predicament. “You are a conjurer!” she called out, making sure all heard. “The arts are forbidden, death is promised to those who trade in them.” “I answered your question,” the stranger said. “I will not deny what I am.” “Then prove it,” Lissa yelled. “Silly sow!” a tablemate hissed. Lissa Arethaddle was not sure how this man could have found her, but she did not think he knew magic. She simply wanted help dealing with this stranger, but had no one to call on as a friend. Even in a room full of people, Lissa was as alone as she always had been. As much as she hated to admit it, this stranger frightened her. That was why she wanted to be clear of his presence as quickly as possible. Perhaps from wherever he came, the talk of magic was allowed. Here, among these simple country folk, such talk was not tolerated.

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There was a slight whisper of steel against steel as someone drew a sword. The crowd seemed to close in on their corner of the room, as if she had sucked in a great breath of humanity. Their eyes were stony. Their faces were set. Lissa felt satisfaction now that the control swung back to her. Her ploy had worked. Whereas an instant earlier she had been on her own, now the whole inn had turned against this stranger. At one untoward movement, one harsh word, a dozen swords would run him through. Of course, they might prefer to have a little fun with him first. Minstrels did not venture into the outlands often. The citizens had to find entertainment where they could, and if this stranger was daft enough to fight an entire mob, well, Lissa could not be held accountable for what happened to him. It was as if the stranger read her mind, then realized her intentions. The haggard face came to life. A quick glance right and left confirmed his suspicions. Instead of displaying fear, the stranger flashed a broad, easy smile. Now Lissa was even more afraid of him, for a reason she could not understand. “Go ahead, conjurer,” the thief yelled, her voice carrying a shrill tone she did not recognize. “Show us all one of your forbidden tricks!” The stranger took a look around the room, seeing the white knuckles and grimly set faces. The crowd was closing in on him now. There was not much time. “As you command,” the stranger said. “Watch my hand very closely.” With his left hand, palm down, the stranger drew a straight line through the air. The thief did not see his arm reach its full extension. No one did. The inn was pitched into complete darkness.

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The lamps at the bar, the roaring fires in each hearth, the flickering candles on each table, were all instantly extinguished. Pandemonium ensued. Chairs tumbled across the floor, tables overturned, people screamed as they trampled over each other for the door. The crowd jammed the entrance, clawing and kicking like animals for their freedom. The patrons of the inn spilled into the muddy road outside and did not stop there. Torches on each side of the door were out. Torches at the stable were extinguished. Even the moon itself was gone, suddenly ensconced behind a thick blanket of clouds. The crowd ran madly for whatever structure they called home, or any distant place, as far from the inn as possible, they could find. Usually, darkness did not scare the thief. Had she not been terrified by what she’d just witnessed, she would have welcomed the cover of night, for that was where she worked. In this case, all she could do was sit perfectly still and hope the stranger had been swept away by the mob, although she feared that was not the case. After a few moments, she forced herself to move. Like a ghost, she slid noiselessly to the packed, dirt floor and stole toward the back of the inn. Even though she was near panic, she knew she must carefully feel, rather than see, the things that blocked her path, objects that might raise alarm should she stumble into them. The bar creaked ever so slightly as she lifted it off the back door, which swung wide into the dark night. Moving slowly toward the stables on her right, Lissa could still hear the pounding feet of those running from what they had seen in the inn. Before her, across a small

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clearing, was a deep, dark forest, a place where she could be lost to all others for as long as she desired. Lissa decided to leave her horse. It was stolen only a few days before, and there were plenty of places where she could obtain another. As she stepped out from the eaves of the inn, the clouds suddenly drifted away and the moon illuminated her path to safety. And there, halfway across the clearing, waited the stranger on a huge black steed. In his hands he held the reins for a second horse, which he held out to her. Lissa Arethaddle could see no sense in running. Her mind was still too confused to process all that had taken place, but she was sure of one thing. This stranger, this conjurer whose sword she had foolishly coveted, was beyond her skills. If he had wanted to do her harm, he would have done this already. Lissa stepped away from the building, her feet heavy and plodding like one condemned, trudging to her brutal fate. She took the reins and climbed onto the horse as the stranger spun his mount so they were face to face. “We will ride through the night,” said the stranger, little more than a shadow now. “There are provisions behind you. Keep up, and no tricks. It would be foolish to make me come looking for you. Do you understand?” Lissa Arethaddle nodded. “So far I am disappointed,” the stranger said. “You’re not much of a thief, are you?” “Why would you say that?”

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The stranger tossed her the purse of coins and turned his horse away. “Because you left my money on the table.”

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CHAPTER 2

Lissa and the dark stranger rode through the hills and toward the mountains. Had her mind not been on other things, she would have been alarmed by their course. No one traveled these mountains, which were said to be impassable and haunted by the spirits of those who had died trying to prove otherwise. Lissa’s horse was content to stay with the one in front, so the thief had little to do but think. Where were they going? Why would this man, this man with the forbidden power he had just displayed, come looking among the outlands for her? And what service would he require? What could she do that he couldn’t? Was he also a thief? She thought about these puzzling questions for a few hours, going back and forth as she rocked in the saddle. He carried himself like an important man. And a sure one. His clothing had been as muddy and dirty as anyone else in the inn, and yet he stood out in the room. This aura was nothing he did, it was simply part of his presence. Once Lissa came to that conclusion, she decided the man who had hired her was no thief, as any good thief went to great pains not to be noticed. Lissa herself often wore her cloak over her head, covering as much of her face as possible. And that was on the somewhat rare occasion when she went into public places. So if he wasn’t a thief, then undoubtedly he

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was a warrior. His forbearance and sword left little doubt of that. But for whom was he a warrior? And why again would anyone of any importance be interested in her? Of course, there was no chance to ask the stranger these questions, and she was sure he would not have answered them anyway. As they climbed switchback trails, higher into the haunted hills, she noticed there had been a subtle change in the stranger. She wondered if someone other than a thief would have picked up on this minute difference. His broad back seemed to shrink within itself. After a while, she could only imagine he was sleeping as he teetered on his saddle. Watching him sway back and forth, Lissa hoped a fall from his horse into the abyss beside them would solve her problem. If not, she had to figure another solution. Magic or not, she had no intention of reaching the end of this stranger’s trail. The night was silent save the occasional scramble of hoofs as the horses negotiated the steeper trails. The sun had cast its glow on a gloomy sky before the stranger reined in his horse. He struggled to dismount, but did not try to hide his weakness from her. He leaned against a boulder, his face a pasty white. “There is something wrong with you,” Lissa said from her horse’s back. The stranger smiled ruefully and, combined with the scar, the expression gave his face a savage appearance. “I’m not the man I once was,” he said. “But I am man enough if you don’t behave.” The thief swung down from her horse. “So that wasn’t a trick? There is still magic in this world?”

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The stranger grunted. “Of course that was a trick. A cheap trick. One I shouldn’t have had to use.” He paused for a moment, collecting himself. “But you backed me into a corner. Smart girl.” “The conjuring did this? It takes something physically out of you?” “I hired you for your skills,” he said, dismissing her with a wave. “Not for your questions.” Lissa walked to the edge of the trail. Mountains loomed before them, brown barren mountains with only heavy snowcaps as ornamentation. “I have not been through these mountains. It is said that very few have. They are haunted, you know?” “For those who are discouraged by such things.” “Where are we going?” “Time will tell soon enough,” the stranger said. “And your name? Will you not tell me that either?” The man had pulled a flask and some jerked meat from his saddlebags. He chewed thoughtfully, then said, “If I tell you my name will you stop with all these questions?” “Probably not,” Lissa said. He nodded, as if that were the answer he expected. “My name is La Forge, Morgan La Forge.” “Right, and I am Lady Regunn of Chantan.” La Forge looked at her. Despite herself, Lissa started to laugh. “You? La Forge? You expect me to believe that you are the King’s Warrior?”

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The stranger pulled himself up and bowed. “Indeed I do, bound in life and death to King Artimus Abnell, Fourth Liege of the Dancik Line.” Her laugh was hearty and echoed in the surrounding hills. “La Forge? The man who won the Battle of the Banif Plains?” “And other battles.” “Aren’t you supposed to be seven feet tall? Don’t you ride at the head of a special army of red booted men?” She pointed at his dusty clothes, his shaggy hair, and his tired face. “You expect me to believe that you are the great King’s Warrior?” “You asked the question and I answered it. In the long run, whether you believe me or not is immaterial.” She watched as he returned his provisions to the saddlebag, her eyes admiring the scabbard she had prized the previous night. She thought back to his conjured magic and to the sack of coins that rode behind her. Someone had found her in the middle of nowhere, someone who had known her given name, who else would be capable of that but that right hand man of King Abnell? “The men that I turned on you at the inn? You could have told them who you were and they would have bowed down to you.” “As you are doing now?” Lissa felt her face turn scarlet. She dropped to a knee. “Young lady,” the stranger said, now it was his turn to laugh before he pulled her to her feet. “I am a man of arms in the service of my King. I am not royalty. And as far as my army goes, sometimes it is better to steal through the night in small numbers than to parade your intentions in the dusty cloud of marching men. Your assumption was that I

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used that trick last night to protect myself.” The man named Morgan La Forge drew himself up, some of the strength returning to his face. “I was not worried about my well being. I did it to protect them. Now enough with the friendly banter. We have a long ride ahead of us.” With some effort, the King’s Warrior, Morgan La Forge, climbed into his saddle and started away. “The King’s Warrior,” the thief called after him, still not able to believe it. He turned a corner in the trail, disappearing from sight as she mounted her own horse. The trail was there behind her, beckoning her to escape. On this winding path, how much time would pass before he realized she did not follow? If she could get out of the hills and back into the trees she could make herself practically invisible. Would he have the strength to chase her? To find her? And was he actually the man he claimed to be? “He’d probably turn me into a frog after he caught me,” the thief said to no one as she sat on her horse and deliberated which path to choose. Finally, she poked her horse in the ribs, following the course of La Forge. The King’s Warrior, she thought! Then her heart chilled. If his answers were truthful, if he was Morgan La Forge, then what could a man like that possibly want with her?

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CHAPTER 3

As the day progressed, the mountains surrounded them. They entered a mountainous desert, a wasteland of rock and sand. But by late afternoon they left the bald rocks for green, densely vegetated spires, with barren peaks surrounding the greenery. From a distance, the mountains had looked lifeless. “These mountains aren’t so dead,” Lissa called out to La Forge. “Many things aren’t as they seem,” was the warrior’s only reply. Lissa noticed color was beginning to return to the stranger’s skin, and he sat straight in the saddle despite the rigors of the day’s ride. She still wasn’t convinced he was who he claimed to be, but now he was like the man she had witnessed in the inn and he rode with the forbearance of a great warrior. He drew up in a small clearing. She dismounted and he took their horses, picketing them in a grass patch next to a cliff. The thief was prepared to rest. La Forge had other ideas. He withdrew a strange leather contraption from his saddlebag, then beckoned for her to follow him to a nearby precipice that shot straight into the sky. “You can climb up this?” La Forge asked with a glance up at the nearly sheer rock wall.

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The thief surveyed the cliff face. From the ground the cliff resembled a piece of ornamental glass. Lissa knew better, her sharp eyes zeroing in on the rock. It ran almost straight up from the base; at several points huge outcroppings of rock jutted out from the face at peculiar angles. The rock was coarse. There appeared to be plenty of handholds and a path through the outcroppings of rock. Lissa nodded. “I can.” La Forge stepped aside and gestured for her to begin. Lissa unstrapped the thin belt that held her sword and let it drop to the ground. She mounted the rock with a grin on her face, feeling confidence for the first time in hours. She could climb almost anything and used that to her advantage when it came to exercising her trade. Heights rarely bothered her. If these were the skills the warrior wanted from her, then all was well. What’s more, the two of them were obviously headed deeper into the mountains; if climbing was to be her assignment and the warrior could not climb, then she was sure to find herself with opportunities for escape. She had taken hold of the rock and had begun to lift herself up when he stopped her. Before she could complain La Forge wrapped a leather strap over her shoulder. The strap was about four feet long and attached to a deep pouch. La Forge picked up a sizable rock and set it in the pouch. “Now,” he said. “Can you climb the wall with that?” She hefted the pouch. It was not too heavy. “I can.” “And can you keep the rock from falling out of the pouch?” She looked up, surveying a new path to the top, giving more consideration to her path because of his requirements. “I can.”

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“And, most importantly, can you keep the pouch from banging against the wall as you climb?” Lissa turned to him, to see if this was a joke. His rugged face revealed nothing. “You don’t ask for much, do you?” La Forge gestured for her to begin. Lissa quickly traversed the first fifty feet, scrambling from one hold to the next with the ease of a child in a small tree. Then the climbing grew more difficult. She had to study each move before trying to find purchase. Her slender fingers, so adept at discovering wealth on the body of another, now seemed to find handholds where there were none. And her willowy arms displayed their true strength, at times holding her entire weight while her feet hung over open space. The pouch swung some at first, slapping against the wall a few times until she learned to let it swing with her body, side to side along the rock face instead of against it. Within a few minutes she had reached the top of the cliff, finding a small meadow not unlike the one the warrior stood in below. “Good,” La Forge called up to her. “Now come back down with it. Remember, don’t let the rock drop out.” “Yes, Master,” Lissa hissed under her breath. Her eyes quickly scanned her surroundings. There appeared to be no way out of the meadow without more climbing, either up more rock faces to an uncertain path beyond or back down to the warrior. Plus her provisions, and the money he had paid her, were on the horse below. There would be an opportunity to escape. This was not it.

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Lissa did not take time to rest. After a few minutes she realized coming down was much more difficult. The dead weight of the pouch began to wear on her arms, pulling her down too quickly, preventing her from finding the easiest path in the rock face. Her weariness disturbed her concentration. She was almost halfway down when she climbed her way into a dead end. Cursing under her labored breath, she reversed course and climbed back up to a small ledge to try another route of descent. As she reached for the ledge, the rock fell out of the pouch and bounced down the cliff face, exploding into a thousand pieces at the feet of the warrior. La Forge said nothing once she reached the ground. They made a small fire and ate. She stretched out and slept soundly, her arms aching from the climb and the rest of her body weary from the long night’s ride. When she awoke, La Forge had saddled the horses and cleared away any evidence of the fire. There was no indication he had rested. The sun dipped behind the mountains as they mounted their horses and rode on.

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CHAPTER 4

For the next three days they rode almost nonstop as La Forge pushed them through the mountain passes. Most of the time the trails were so narrow they were forced to ride single file. When she did get the chance to ride beside the warrior, he did not seem inclined to offer more information than he had already revealed. Twice each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, they stopped and La Forge watched her climb with the pouch. She took to the task immediately. By the second day, she was scurrying up the cliff faces without even thinking about the pouch, never once dropping the rock again. If La Forge was pleased with her progress, he did not show it, simply nodding his shaggy black head each time she returned to the ground. Then there was a quick rest, a meal, then more riding. Always, always pressing on. On the morning of the fifth day of their journey, they began to descend out of the mountains. Based on the peaks to her right, Lissa decided they had just traversed a corner of the massive range. In her mind she tried to picture their whereabouts within the realm, but the maps she had seen over the years had been crude, and none of them had any clear indication of what had been beyond those supposedly dead mountains.

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The warrior became more cautious here, stopping for long periods of time at different vistas and surveying the land that began to open up before them. He also took care where they crested the hills, making sure they offered no silhouette to any who might be watching. Lissa could see little due to the trees that now lined most of the trail. Evergreens and majestic oaks hovered over their heads. Fallen leaves crumbled beneath their horses’ hooves. Every once in a while, she thought she caught sight of smoke off to their left. Lissa felt again the temptation to attempt escape, the hint of opportunity that might present itself among others, and again she forced herself to be patient. When La Forge saw her looking that way he shook his head to her unspoken question. No, they were not going into that village. The trees along the trail played out and the mountains, at last, gave way to a wide valley, a massive, rolling space like a green sea. On the far side of the valley sprawled another range of mountains, this one even more imposing than the one they had just crossed. There was nothing else to break up the landscape – no trees, no roads, no structures of any kind. “Do I know this place?” Lissa asked herself, marveling in the starkness of it all. “That’s where we are going,” La Forge finally said, nodding in the direction of the gigantic mountains. “We will cross the valley tonight. No matter how careful we are, someone will see our tracks. Then the game is on. But the farther we can get from the valley before they know we’ve been here, the better chance we have of coming out of this alive.”

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Lissa knew she should have been paying closer attention. He was talking of other people, and other people meant opportunity. Still, she could not take her eyes off the valley. “What is this valley? It seems familiar, but I can’t place it.” “Mersam ver Nachten. The Great Sleeping Valley,” La Forge said as he gestured with his chin at the sea of green. “I suspect there will be Northmen guarding that valley. Do you know them?” The names meant nothing to her. The thief shook her head. “Fighters who owe their allegiance to the purse, not any crown. Trackers each and every one, as well as excellent shots with the bow. Can you use that?” La Forge said, looking at the sword on her belt. “Well enough. Can you at least tell me something? Where we are going? What we are trying to do? Why did I lug rocks all over those mountains?” La Forge stayed the course, much to her frustration. “The Northmen rarely travel alone. If we are seen, we’ll run – if we have the chance – no matter how many of them there appear to be. We will only fight as a last resort.” “Doesn’t sound like the mentality of a great warrior to me,” Lissa said. “It’s the mentality of someone who wants to stay alive,” La Forge said, then urged his horse down toward the valley.

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CHAPTER 5

Lissa realized to her surprise, for the first time since she’d met him, La Forge was finally sleeping. As they waited behind a knoll for the sun to go down, she lay back in the dense grass and listened to the horses eat while La Forge rested. Then, awaking suddenly, he jumped to a half crouch like a creature startled into instant action. He saw everything at once, and within seconds his tense muscles relented. “Sleeping a little harder than I’m used to,” La Forge said once he spotted her in the shadows. “I don’t like having someone watch me while I sleep.” She had been watching him intently, trying to figure what he was going to do with her. “Well, I’m not used to riding all over the country and not knowing why.” La Forge came over to her side, kneeling to lace his worn boots as he spoke. “I will make a deal with you. Let’s get across the valley unseen. Once we are in the mountains again I will tell you what we are doing.” “Why not tell me now? We’ve got time.” “Because, if you are caught crossing the valley, you will be glad you don’t know what I’m up to.” La Forge went to the horses and left her with her fears. A short time later the sun was gone and they set off into the night.

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There were no trees in the valley, only constantly waving, tall strands of grass that touched the flanks of the horses as they walked. As they came out of the hills and into the valley floor, they spotted campfires in the distance on three occasions. Each time La Forge altered course away from the distant lights and pressed on. Atop the mountain, the valley appeared to have a rolling landscape. Not so on the valley floor. It was like a wide-open grass desert. There was nowhere to hide from the bright moon that settled over the valley; its light rivaled the sun. Lissa wondered how they would ever make it across unseen. “We might as well have your army for all the hiding we can do out here,” Lissa muttered. “Appearances can be deceiving. Names, too. There is much going on under this grass.” La Forge stopped often, sitting on his horse in the light breeze, turning his head one way, then the other, sometimes with his eyes closed as he let his ears do the work. He seemed as calm as could be, unlike Lissa whose stomach knotted with pain. Suddenly and silently, La Forge drew his sword. “They found us,” the warrior whispered. He slid from his horse . . . and the grass swallowed him up. Before Lissa could voice a question at least ten figures materialized in front of her, a party of men where seconds before there had been nothing but the nearly endless vista of grass. Her horse shied at the scent of the beastly looking men. The figure nearest her lunged, grabbing Lissa’s leg as she jerked back her horse. The world spun as she ripped the reins to the left but the man held on, drawing back a small ax in his right hand.

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Lissa whipped out her sword in time to block the descending ax, although the fierceness of the blow unseated her. She hit the ground in a roll and leapt into the grass. She had run ten feet in a crouch when she realized no one was behind her. Lissa dropped to her knees. Her breath coming in ragged gasps, she peered through the grass and was transfixed by what she saw. Four men – Northmen, they were – surrounded La Forge, circling him like wary predators as he waited in the middle. Suddenly they attacked him from all sides. He dodged one blow, parried another and drove his sword into one of the men, then spun the dying man around to use as a shield. The other three resumed their attack. Then a fourth rose up from the grass, and a fifth. She didn’t know how these men were popping up from this vast grass wasteland but it did not seem to bother La Forge. His long hair swung wildly as he fielded all comers. Lissa had almost convinced herself that he might need her help when he cut down two of the Northmen. Then another. And another. One of the two men left retreated while the last one, a monster of a man, swung a mighty battle-axe from the hip in arcs that cut wide swaths of grass. La Forge calmly waited for the big blade to pass, then stepped inside the freshly cut grass and finished the man. The Northman who had fled stood at least fifty paces away. He held a bow, which he notched with an arrow. La Forge started his way as Lissa heard the soft twang of the arrow taking flight. La Forge waved his hand in a dismissive motion and the arrow, which had been flying true, careened off in another direction. Lissa could not believe her eyes. The archer did not believe it, either. He threw down his bow as La Forge advanced. The archer drew his sword, then crumbled before the assault of the King’s Warrior.

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The battle had taken only a few minutes. Lissa had many questions she wanted answered. After watching La Forge in action, after seeing him change the course of an arrow in mid-flight, the true identity of the stranger was no longer one of them. He was indeed the strong right hand of King Abnell. The thief gathered the reins of both horses and led them to La Forge, who stood with his back to her. He turned at her approach and said, “There are more coming. Too many. This will seem strange but you have to trust me. You must!” He grabbed the reins from her hands and stripped his pack off from behind the saddle. Then, cupping his hands, he spoke urgently to the animal, “Verbeam, ipsno, glinich verbeam.” The horse neighed softly and tossed its head. Then the horses galloped away through the grass, the massive fields swallowing them up in seconds. Lissa Arethaddle felt true panic. They were stranded now. In the middle of the green sea. Morgan La Forge sheathed his sword and shouldered his pack. He took her hands in his. His skin was hot to the touch, as if he were aglow with energy. “Do not move,” he said urgently. “No matter what happens, do not let go of me.” Even as he said this, she heard a thundering of hooves. Mounted men appeared in the grass around them. She turned to La Forge for assurance, but he had his eyes closed, mumbling a short verse again and again. She knew grabbing her sword would be a futile

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act, but she felt she must do something to protect herself. La Forge held her arms in a grip she could not defeat. The horsemen circled the small battlefield with swords drawn. La Forge was right. There were too many of them. And there was nowhere to hide in the wide-open valley. The thief looked across at La Forge once more, his face twisted in concentration as he pronounced those strange words again and again. Then Lissa also closed her eyes and waited for death.

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CHAPTER 6

No cries of discovery came. Commands were issued. The horses sounded strangely muted as they snorted and tossed their heads, circling the field of death where Lissa and La Forge now huddled. More horsemen arrived as Lissa opened her eyes, careful to follow his instructions and not move her body. She found herself looking at a world askew, tinted a shade of blue, fuzzy almost, as if she had been struck too hard in the head. La Forge still had his eyes closed, his lips moving in unspoken words. Instead of heat, there was now a burning sensation on her arms where they touched. The two of them were in plain view of the entire party of Northmen. There was nothing between them and a hundred warriors and yet no one seemed to take notice. Lissa tried to understand. How could they not be seen? Was it possible that La Forge had cast some kind of spell to take them from the sight of the horsemen? Was his power so great? Many of the Northmen had dismounted now, going from body to body and scavenging what they wanted from the men La Forge had killed. A man on a black horse, his skull wrapped in animal skins, barked commands to others who were on the periphery of the group. The tongue was strange to Lissa, but the

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meaning of the words was easy enough. They were looking for them. An exclamation went up. The path of the two horses had been found. Another man, a slim black haired figure with a bare chest, strode to the site of the discovery and followed the tracks into the grass. When he came back, he shook his head vigorously at the mounted man on the black horse, who was obviously the leader. The leader also shook his head and argued back, but the man on foot, a tracker of some sort, stood his ground, pointing his hand down at the clearing where they were. The burning sensation on Lissa’s arms was becoming worse. When she looked at La Forge she could see that he was beginning to shake. The tracker came and stood right before them, not two paces from where La Forge and Lissa huddled together. He studied the ground, coming toward them on his knees. Then he stopped and looked right into Lissa’s eyes. Only he wasn’t seeing her. The ground was telling him what his eyes could not. Lissa almost panicked when the tracker reached out to her. A strange numbness went through her chest as the tracker’s hand went right through her body. La Forge had turned her into a spirit. This was not possible. Lissa felt faint. The leader, still on his horse, had seen enough. He shouted another command at the tracker and kicked the flanks of his horse. The entire party of horsemen, save the dismounted tracker, galloped away in the direction La Forge’s horses had taken. They were left only with the tracker. Lissa did not move as the tracker stepped behind them. From the corner of her eye she could see him studying the ground. Then he walked through them, as if they weren’t

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there, and a chill passed through her body. The tracker dropped to a knee in front of them, running his hands lightly across the trampled grass. The burning on her arms was almost unbearable now, like her arms were being held over an open flame. La Forge was shaking so badly that Lissa knew he could not maintain this spell much longer. The tracker stepped back from them a few paces and stared. Finally, he drew a short sword and waited. An impasse. The tracker was trusting his instincts over what his eyes were telling him. He was not going to leave. From the reaction of his body, Lissa knew La Forge could not hold on. Lissa also knew what she had to do. It took all of her strength to push La Forge away. The blur of the world disappeared for real light, which was harsh and bright. The King’s Warrior fell the ground and did not move. Lissa dropped to one knee; her head spun as she tried to quickly reacquaint her body with reality. As she struggled to stand the tracker did not press his advantage, watching her as his incredulous eyes tried to comprehend what his instinct had already known to be true. He had just seen two people appear out of nowhere. Lissa drew her sword. The tracker spoke, his words guttural, his voice little more than a hiss. The words meant nothing but the sneer said, “Woman.” He brought his sword up and she attacked.

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Like most in her occupation, the thief did not prefer face-to-face fights. That did not mean she lacked the skill for it. She enjoyed the occasional fight, and when pressed, could handle a sword, as well as throw knives with either hand. The tracker’s skill was so great that he’d managed to see through a spell. He obviously had not spent as much time with the blade as he did on the trail. The tracker pressed his attack clumsily, trying to bludgeon her with brute strength. But the thief was nimble. What Lissa gave away in strength she more than made up for in speed. After their blades crossed several times the tracker realized this, too. He grappled with her, trying to keep her close, which provided the perfect opportunity for her to use the short dagger in her left hand. She drove it between his ribs, providing a slight twist before wresting it free as the tracker fell. The tracker looked up at her, grunting as his life spilled into the grass. Before he died, Lissa thought she saw a grimace of satisfaction, knowing he was dying because his skills had been sharp.

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CHAPTER 7

There was no way to roust the unconscious warrior. His muscular body did not respond to her pushing and prodding. The thief tied La Forge in his cloak and shouldered his pack. Every instinct told her to run, to get away from this site of death as quickly as possible. She was a survivor and she held no allegiance to this man. A sack of coin or not, he had all but forced her to follow him over the mountains. For days now she had been plotting her escape and now the way was clear. She should turn back and make for her previous life that held no magic or great warriors. Reason told her such a decision would be fruitless. She could not go back to the mountains from whence they had come. The tracker’s horse had run off. On foot, through those treacherous peaks, with no map, little in the way of provisions, she wouldn’t make it far. She could go up or down the long valley. But even now she could hear the distant beating of horse’s hoofs, or perhaps it was some sort of drum. These Northmen seemed to be everywhere and in the high grass she was as likely to stumble onto them as they were on her. That was the problem. From the mountainside the green of the valley had looked comfortable and inviting even as it was bleak. Now the high grass seemed to suffocate

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her. The vastness of the valley left her feeling exposed and lost. Of one thing she was certain, she wanted out of this infernal grass as soon as possible. That left the rugged mountains across the valley as her only viable alternative. The original path of La Forge. She did not know what those dark mountains held, but she thought the other choices held a good chance of death. And she knew that she needed La Forge to get through those mountains. At least that is what she told herself as she grabbed his boots and began dragging him. What had seemed like a flat grass desert now revealed itself to be more. La Forge had hinted that such was the case. Crevices hidden by the waving grass ran through the valley floor in a spider web like pattern. Some of the holes were only a foot or so deep, some of them appeared to be yawing mouths to the middle of the Earth. She realized now that La Forge had not only been taking them away from Northmen when he had altered their course across the valley, he had also been avoiding these sink holes in the valley floor. Lissa forced herself to calm down. She would not make it far with such a heavy burden. She had to stop her panicked flight. This was the time for clear thinking and solid decisions. The crevices gave her an idea. After dragging La Forge fifty paces, she put him down near a deep looking hole, cast even larger by the shadows of the whole moon, then unloaded the gear and went back for the body of the tracker. Careful to stay within her previous path, she returned to the scene of the fight. He was much smaller than La Forge. As she hefted the tracker over

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her shoulder she marveled at the array of bodies the warrior had left in his wake. It was all she could do to carry the tracker back to La Forge, dumping him on the ground. She arranged the tracker so that his head hung over the edge of the opening, then climbed a few feet into the crevasse and wiped his blood down the wall, trying to make it appear like someone had fallen in the hole. She stopped when a few horses galloped past, unseen somewhere out there in the grass. Thankfully, there was no hesitation in the pounding of hooves. They were going somewhere else, intent on something other than the man and woman hiding in their midst. Lissa climbed out of the hole. It was rough work but the best she could do. When the Northmen came back looking for the tracker, she hoped it would appear he had fought with someone near the crevasse, thrown that person into the hole, then died on the edge of it. Which might hold up if no one climbed into the hole. Now came the risky part. At first her plan had simply been to get La Forge away from the clearing and the dead men. Her flight had not been well reasoned and she had wasted time and energy. The crevice had actually given her hope. Already weary from moving the men, she once again loaded up La Forge’s gear, then took his boots and drug him through the grass. She had to stop three times before she got him back to the clearing, which was still strewn with the bodies of those who had fallen to the King’s Warrior. She didn’t dare stop now for fear of discovery. She pulled the warrior through the clearing, making sure she left the trampled grass headed in the same direction as the large party of horses. Lissa’s back screamed out in pain. La Forge’s heavy body burrowed a neat row in the torn up turf. She got him as far away from the clearing as she

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dared, then, using all the strength she had left, she managed to pull him to his feet, and let him fall off the trail and into the deep, undisturbed grass. Stepping carefully, she also left the trail and pulled La Forge another twenty paces or so away. Lissa forced herself to remain calm as she struggled to regain her breath, which was short from effort and perhaps a little fear. After a moment she returned to the horse trail, doing her best to repair the broken grass as she went. Then, on the trail, she used her boot to rough up the furrow that had been plowed by La Forge’s back. Just as she reached the clearing she heard a thundering of hoofs coming back down the trail. There was no way to get to La Forge from where she stood so she ducked into the grass, careful to leave no evidence of her passing. The returning horsemen had torches, which cast wicked shadows through the grass. Some of them dismounted. She watched as these men piled the bodies together in the center of the clearing. Perhaps all her hard work had been for naught. No one seemed to take any notice of the missing tracker. More of the men dismounted and started unloading packs off of their horses. Then she realized what they were doing. They were making camp at the site of the fight. Tents started to go up. The horses were staked out on pickets. A barrel of ale was cracked open. Staying low, Lissa eased through the grass, trying to find her way to La Forge. She missed him the first time, realized her mistake and doubled back. His eyes shot open when she kneeled down beside him. Behind her the banter around the campfire was growing to a low roar.

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La Forge sat up. Immediately he started to fall and she grabbed his arm, holding him upright. His skin was pasty like right after the spell in the inn. After a moment the dizziness must have passed. The warrior nodded for her to let go. “What’s happening?” La Forge asked, even his whisper sounded strained. “You’re not even going to thank me for saving your life?” “I’ll wait until that job is complete. I’m still not sure we won’t be dead in the next five minutes.” “A group of Northmen are setting up camp. Pitching tents, looks like they are settling in.” La Forge frowned as he studied the sky. “Setting up camp? This early in the night? Perhaps they are expecting company.” “Then let’s get away from here. Can you walk?” “No,” La Forge whispered. “But I can crawl.”

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CHAPTER 8

Through the rest of the night they wound their way through the grass. Lissa would go ahead, picking a path through the random holes in the ground while La Forge steadfastly drug himself behind her. He never told her he could go no further. But as a dull light started to brighten the valley one look at the King’s Warrior was enough. His colorless skin and ragged breath bespoke his pain. He needed rest. To push on would be folly. Lissa found a narrow crevasse, not too deep. While the sides were rocky, the floor of it was sand and soft dirt. She helped La Forge down into the hole, then backtracked and tried to clean up any indication of their passage. She did a pretty good job because she almost didn’t find her way back. Once she lowered herself down in the hole she saw that La Forge was deep asleep. Lissa pressed her herself into the soft ground. She was determined to stay awake, to listen for sounds from those who sought them. The comfortable sand worked against her. Despite her best effort, ever so slowly, sleep overtook her.

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The thief awoke with a start. There was dirt in her eyes, which she clawed away. She tasted the dust in her mouth as she spat. Something was wrong! Was someone throwing dirt into the hole? No that wasn’t right. The ground was rumbling, vibrating around her as dirt rained down on them. Then she saw it. Dirt was pouring in from all sides. The opening to the crevasse above her was closing! She was being buried alive! Lissa scrambled to her feet. Once she stood, the closing ground was already pressing against her chest and back. As she clawed at the sides of the hole something latched on to her legs. The grip was like iron. It was La Forge. Some shred of decency in her told her she had to help the warrior get out. But the ground pressing against her chest let the panic win. She tried to kick him away. His grip did not waver. Something struck her legs and she fell back into the shrinking hole. Before she could recover La Forge climbed on top of her, putting a hand across her screaming mouth. “It’s called Mersum ver Nachten,” the warrior yelled. “The Great Sleeping Valley. It is a breathing valley.” The rumbling ground threatening to swallow his voice as

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well. “If we go out there in the light of day there will be nowhere to hide. The Northmen will find us.” Lissa could barely breathe. Dirt fell into her mouth, her nose and her eyes. “If we stay, we will be buried alive!” La Forge tried to calm her. “For a day. As soon as the sun sets the valley will breathe, and open, again.” Despite what he said, Lissa had to get free, she had to get out. “I can’t do this. You can’t expect me to be buried for an entire day?” “You have to trust me,” La Forge said, holding her back. “This is our only option.” It didn’t matter anyway. The morning sky was almost gone now, shut out by the closing hole. Her escape route was cut off. The sand packed in around them as the crevasse closed, entombing them in the ground’s crust. Lissa opened her mouth, trying to catch her breath. When she finally got a mouthful of air that was not filled with dirt and dust, the thief began to scream.

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CHAPTER 9

La Forge had done something to her, of that she was certain once she regained her facilities. A good deal of time had passed. A tiny crack above them, where there had been a large hole during the night, let in a sliver of light and enough air. It also let in a rainfall of dirt and dust each time horses trampled overhead. “It sounds like an army is marching on top of us,” Lissa finally whispered. There was barely enough room for the two of them. She could wiggle her toes and fingers, other than that she could not move. “Back with us?” La Forge asked. He was pressed against her, their faces only inches apart. “Based on what I’ve heard overhead, I think the next night will find this valley very crowded. A host is gathering.” “Does it have to do with us? With what we are doing?” “It does.” She let that sit for a moment then asked, “You called this a breathing valley?” “I’ve known of this place for many years, although I have never traveled this route before. The ground opens and breathes at night. Then closes by day.” “You’re sure it opens every night?” “Or every full moon, I never can get that right.”

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Lissa struck back with her elbow and the warrior grunted. “Tight, inescapable spaces are not my strong suit,” the thief said. “I understand,” La Forge said. “If you do that again, I will put you back to sleep.” Lissa struck back with her elbow. She felt his hand on her forehead. And then she felt nothing.

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“How does one become the King’s Warrior?” The thief was awake again. Although they had no way to determine time, buried like they were, they guessed it was late afternoon. “By never losing a fight,” La Forge said quietly. “Then why am I only a lowly thief?” “My mother served royalty when I was but a child. We played together, the Artimus Abnell and I. Grew up together. As such, I was there when the first attempt was made on his life.” “Tell me about it,” Lissa whispered when he stopped. “Or put me back to sleep. But since you seem to lose strength every time you use magic, maybe you should use your mouth instead.” “We were still boys. The King’s father and mother died, leaving him as only heir to the throne. An uncle, who was serving as an advisor, decided the throne would be

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better served in his hands and sent men to do his bidding. Those men approached us in a garden, the servants had all been sent away.” La Forge laughed under his breath. “I hid Artimus Abnell in a pile of dung, then led the would be assassins deeper into the trees. They split up to find me, and I was able to take them one by one.” “How old were you?” “Thirteen seasons, I think.” La Forge did not speak loudly, he never seemed to. His voice was deep and melodious, almost like the instrument of a traveling bard. “And you weren’t scared?” “Terrified. But I managed to act. And other than ending up with a hideously smelling prince, we got through it all right.” “You have never left his side since then?” Lissa asked. “Oh, I left it that day, spirited out the castle gates in the wagon of a greedy merchant. The conspiracy against the boy heir was complicated, and those who knew better knew the only chance I had at life was somewhere else. A destitute peddler found me. Of course, he was not what he appeared to be.” “That’s when you learned to conjure?” “That’s when I learned many things,” La Forge said. “The magic came easy. As I have said before, the peddler offered to help me because he saw the gift in me. MinstreVeeha. One of the gifts of old magic. I learned what little magic I know from him and him alone.” “What little magic? Every time you get in trouble the magic has gotten you through it.”

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“You are but a child and have no concept of true magic. I am no conjurer. I am a swordsman who is strengthened by the power of my king. I am a leader of men in battle. I use the magic as it suits me.” He paused then, as if considering something before he said, “If it had not been for you, the magic would have not gotten me past the Northmen.” Lissa smiled in the darkness. “Yes, and look where I’ve gotten us, entombed in a breathing, sleeping valley.” “You have done well,” La Forge said. “And once we get across the valley, I will explain more to you, so you understand what is at stake.” “Like I had a choice in the matter?” “Lissa, you are here because the gift is also within you.” “Magic? In me? Why would you think that?” “Because,” the King’s Warrior said. “While many other matters clouded my mind, I was still able to feel your presence.”

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CHAPTER 10

The thief thought about his words while the steady movement of his chest told her that La Forge slept. She had the gift? How could he know that? Her only gifts were for staying unseen when she didn’t want to be seen. For slipping locks and understanding where others might hide their valuables. For understanding the minds of men and how their greed might motivate them. These were dubious gifts when compared to the awesome power La Forge had displayed. The air around them seemed to be cooling and from the crack it appeared that the day was ending. Perhaps she was imagining it, but she thought she caught the twinkle of a distant star. “Don’t tense up,” La Forge whispered, suddenly awake. “It will happen.” After a few more minutes it did. It was as if the ground exhaled, and slowly, too slowly for the thief’s good, the hole above them yawned open. Despite herself, Lissa scrambled out of the hole, perhaps stepping on the warrior below her in the process. La Forge took his time, standing in the hole and trying to get a small mountain of dirt and sand out of his clothing before climbing to the surface.

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Lissa was still covered in dirt. She could feel the sand and grit in her clothes. Still, she made no effort to move, content to lie in the grass, her eyes wide with surprise at the sight around them. La Forge climbed beside her and sighed. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “Who are they?” La Forge did not answer the question, appearing to count in his mind as his eyes ran across the terrain. “How many of them are there?” Lissa breathed. La Forge took a moment to survey the campfires that twinkled up and down the valley. There seemed to be enough fires to rival the stars in the sky. He didn’t even bother trying to count the tents. He saw disassembled siege towers and catapults and other weapons of siege and assault. And many supply wagons. “Three thousand before us,” La Forge said. “Many more up and down the valley.” “What are they doing here?” “They are marching to lay siege on the Castle Merlick and King Artimus Abnell,” La Forge said. “They are preparing to destroy our people.”

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Clouds swirled around the moon as they made their move. Most of the campsites were further down the valley from where they were, putting the pair effectively behind the army and offering them a good chance of getting across the valley unseen. La Forge figured it would take them the majority of the night to reach the mountains on the other side and wasted little time in getting to it. After being packed in that hole for so long Lissa’s legs cramped with the exertion. As they walked, they encountered vast areas of trampled grass where the host had made camp, and broad avenues of dirt where marching men had churned the valley under their boots. Each time they reached one of the avenues of dirt, they would have to stop and wait, making sure no one was around before dashing across the open space. Back in the tall grass, they tried to keep to the deepest parts of it. And there were the crevices to contend with. The yawning holes appeared with little warning. On more than one occasion, they almost walked into a fissure before they were able to stop themselves. The dark mountains on the far side of the valley were looming over the thief and the warrior when a deep, booming drum sounded. La Forge abandoned his caution. They dashed across another broad avenue of dirt as the thud of marching boots echoed through the grass. La Forge pulled Lissa another fifty paces into the deeper grass, then drug her to the ground. They lay on their stomachs as a great host marched right beside them. Lissa pressed her face to the ground, and the column was so close she could still see them through the waving grass.

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Unlike the Northmen, these were clean-cut soldiers who looked dashing in suits of light armor that shone in the moonlight. In addition to the mounted cavalry, there were foot soldiers and large animals pulling siege equipment. It seemed to go on and on, an endless stream of men and supplies. La Forge studied the banners while Lissa marveled at it all. “That’s two council members accounted for,” was all the warrior said. He did not respond to her questions. It took the better part of an hour for the column to march past them. Twice, outriders from the column rode behind their hiding place, between them and their escape to the mountains. Each time Lissa was tempted to act, to move, to do something other than wait to be discovered. And each time La Forge calmed her with a steady hand on her arm. His instincts were true. Their hiding place remained undetected. Once the host was past, La Forge moved more urgently. Too much time had been used waiting on the army, and now they would be hard set to reach the mountains by daybreak. La Forge also seemed upset with himself. “Who was that?” Lissa asked. “Given their presence with the Northmen, and the course of their march, that would appear to be another former ally.” La Forge’s jaw muscles worked feverishly. He stopped and looked back in the direction they had come. “Here is my dilemma,” he said. “I need to go back and warn King Abnell. I fight the battles. The politics is his domain. He trusts my council, but I have underestimated the will of others. I have made an error in judgment. Abnell should be aware of the armies in the field. His former allies have turned on him with a

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vengeance we did not foresee. On the other hand, what I have just seen convinces me our quest is as important as ever.” La Forge looked to the sky, appearing to speak to the heavens before he said, “We have to hope that someone else will bring word to Abnell, that our armies will be drawn together and prepared. We simply have to press on. And we cannot fail.” Less than a week before she had been a simple thief. Lissa preyed on the weak in mind or spirit without compunction. She lived for herself, and stayed alive only by whatever bounty she found. Now she was trekking with the King’s Warrior, slipping across great valleys in the midst of a host marching to war. She did not understand what was happening around her. But for some reason, Lissa liked the way he said “our quest”, even if she still had no clue what that quest was. By the time they started climbing the foothills into the mountains, the valley was awash with light, and activity. More and more columns of soldiers were weaving through the valley like long, dark snakes slithering across the land. It was only a matter of time before they were spotted, even Lissa knew that. It was almost midday before it happened. La Forge didn’t say anything, just pointed to the small group of horseman, well below them now, that peeled off from a column and started their way. “How long for them to catch up to us?” Lissa asked. “Long enough.” They began to jog, cutting through rocks and boulders as they ducked up a canyon, one among many with a narrow opening that offered no more promise than any of the others.

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The mountains were thrust upon them now. As they jogged through the rocks the ragged canyon walls on either side started to grow exponentially toward the sky. After ten minutes, they were sweating profusely, even though the sun was blocked out by the rock formations that dwarfed them. Lissa looked back over her shoulder, spooked by the pursuers closing on them. “Will they be able to track us?” “It might take them a minute to find the right canyon. Then they’ll have to dismount, too, no place for a horse in here. We’ve got time enough.” Lissa appreciated his calm, but given what had happened to her in the previous few days, she almost broke down when the canyon path evaporated into a dead end. The walls on all sides seemed to stretch to the sky. For some reason, La Forge was not concerned. “What are we going to do?” Lissa yelled. “Do? What do you think? We will climb.” La Forge dumped a few things out of his pack and then strapped it and his sword on his back. “Well?” he said to her. “Well? Well what?” “You’re the climber. I’m following you.” Lissa tried to clear her head. She took deep breaths. She was so tired. She shook her hands and arms, loosening them for the task ahead. Then she studied the canyon wall in front of her, trying to pick the best route she could from the ground. “Time is an issue,” La Forge said.

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Lissa glared at him. She walked to the wall, grabbed a handhold, and lifted herself up. She had been too hasty. The rock she chose was brittle, and just as she shifted her weight to climb upward, the stone gave way and Lissa found herself on her backside, the breath blown from her body as she squirmed on the canyon floor. La Forge stood over her, placing his hands on her chest and saying something. The pain cleared instantly. She was able to find her feet. Still, her head spun as she stood and faced the wall again. “Perhaps a different route of ascent would be better,” was all La Forge said. It made her angry. And as the anger flooded her body a warm feeling came with it. Lissa was not able to decipher exactly what it was, only that it was better than the fear that had scattered her thoughts before. She focused inward, bringing great control to all her actions. When she looked up again the path up the rock face revealed itself to her. Though she was tired, Lissa savagely attacked the wall. She could hear La Forge behind her, and took some satisfaction in his labored breath. She heard an oath once as he slipped, but when she glanced down he was right below her, and he gestured with his hand, urging her upward. The anger seeped out of her and Lissa focused on the work. As she proceeded to make her way upwards she called down to La Forge, who was climbing behind her. “Here’s to hoping those men tracking us aren’t too good with a bow.” “They will be,” La Forge said.

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CHAPTER 11

A livid clamoring echoed through the canyons as their pursuers spotted them on the cliff face. “Don’t look down,” La Forge ordered. “Keep climbing. Quickly!” An arrow glanced off the rock just to their left. Then another. Lissa had reached something of an impasse. She saw the perfect handhold to her right and she was pretty sure from there she could pick her way up to a small outcropping of rock that probably offered a ledge above it. The problem was that the handhold waited just out of reach and she was afraid she was too tired to make the jump. She saw no other way. She tried to remain composed. If she failed, she would die. Lissa took a deep breath, then she threw herself to the right. She caught the handhold perfectly and scrambled to the outcropping. As she suspected, there was a ledge above it and it was even larger than she had hoped. She realized ten, maybe fifteen people could have fit in the space. In her excitement to reach relative safety, Lissa was shamed when La Forge grunted somewhere on the rocks below. She crawled to the edge to help him just as he threw a leg over the outcropping and rolled himself onto the surface. Fighting for breath,

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the warrior stripped off his pack and sword and looked over the abyss at the soldiers far below. The men had thrown up their hands and were heading back out of the canyon. “I’ve been spending too much time on a horse,” La Forge said as he turned back to the thief. “Morgan, there is an arrow in your leg.” She could not help but think about it, that was the first time she felt comfortable addressing him with his given name. The King’s Warrior glanced down. “So there is.” He pulled the arrow out. “I guess we were just high enough. Look, it barely broke the skin.” Lissa wasn’t much for wounds. She found something else to do with her eyes, already examining their route up the rest of the rock face. From their ledge she guessed they were about halfway up. “Will they be able to ride around and wait for us at the top?” “No. The only way out of that valley and into these mountains requires a climb. Maybe there is a game trail or two, but nothing that would get them up there in time. They either climb after us or ride away.” He pointed over the ledge. “And it appears they will ride away.” Lissa crossed her legs as she sat. “All right then. I have you on a cliff. I watched you climb. You’re not bad. I’d say, without me, you’ve got an even chance of getting the rest of the way up this face. You told me that after we crossed that valley you would explain what this is all about. We are across the valley. Now tell me.” La Forge grinned at her. She thought he looked younger when he smiled. Whatever fatigue had been residing within the wrinkles of his face moments before was

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now gone as the resilience beneath his skin returned. The warrior picked up a large rock. Then he produced the sling from his pack. “Here it is. We cannot afford to waste time on the cliff. I will live up to my promise, but only while we are in motion. Time is too precious. There will be one last test. You get this rock up to the top of this cliff without dropping it, without banging it against the rock face, and I will answer every question you have.” “Do you have a woman waiting for you at home?” “Almost every question the young lady has.” Now it was the thief’s turn to smile. She had studied the cliff and short of an avalanche, the second half of the climb would be much easier than the first. She took the rock and sling and put them into place. She was already scaling the wall when he grabbed her leg and pulled her back to the ledge. “There is one more thing,” he said. “I’m learning there usually is with you.” La Forge produced a large spike. She took them. “Am I building something?” He handed her a small hammer and wrapped a belt around her waist. He slung a similar belt around his own waist. “At least three times on this climb you will stop and put one of these nails into the face of the cliff. Then you will hook your belt into the nail like this,” he said, demonstrating. “Then you will rest.” “What if I don’t need to rest?” “What if the climb isn’t always this easy?”

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Lissa felt a shiver go down her spine. She stepped to the ledge and looked down at the canyon floor far below. Then she looked up at the canyon ledge far above. “This easy? You are saying to me that this climb is easy?” “Compared to what will be asked of you? Yes, it is.” She thought about that for a second. “Am I going to be given the option of quitting?” “Yes, you can give me my money back, leave right now, make your way back across the sleeping valley that is filled with your enemy, and through the mountains back to your inn, where your friends last saw you in the presence of conjurer.” “Technically, the men in the valley are your enemy. I am a simple thief. I know nothing of such things.” “Tell that to the Northmen when they catch you. And, on the slim chance they don’t and you manage to cross the mountains back to the outposts, then explain to your friends what happened that night at the inn and tell them about your true profession. Oh, yes, make sure you remind a few of the older ones what your true name is. I would be surprised if that did not make an impact with a few of them.” “Why is that?” Lissa felt almost frantic. “I know nothing unusual about my given name.” La Forge held his hands out. “I have talked far too much and upset you. You may go now with my blessing.” Of course, the thief did not even consider his option an alternative. She pointed at the warrior. “When we get to the top, we will sit and you will tell me everything.”

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“If you get to the top without falling, dropping the rock or banging it against the cliff, then I will tell you everything as we walk. No time for sitting.” Without another word, she threw herself at the cliff. Having already mastered the art of keeping the hanging rock off the cliff face, she made easy work of it until she tried to place one of the nails into the wall. Trying to do it with one hand while she held onto the cliff with the other, she dropped the first nail, which promptly hit La Forge on the head. “Try driving the spike into the rock with your hand to get it started, then use the hammer to finish the job.” She did as he said and it worked. Then she latched her belt into the nail. “Now you have to trust it,” La Forge said. “Lean back.” “Trust it? Why would I do that?” “Because the whole point is to take pressure off your hands, arms and shoulders. To give you a chance to rest. We’ve been on this cliff for less than an hour and we had a rest on a convenient ledge. What if you had to be on a cliff all day and there was no ledge?” Lissa did not ask the questions that formed in her mind. Nor did she share the smart retorts that tempted her tongue. Instead, she eased back. The leather creaked as the belt gradually took her weight. “Good,” La Forge called from below. “How do you feel?” “Like a bird with no common sense.” “Fair enough. Now twist out the nail and move on. Try it one more time before we reach the top.”

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The next time it went perfectly. She almost enjoyed the rest as La Forge clung to the cliff below her. But she wanted answers more than satisfaction, so she unhooked herself from the wall and finished the climb. The summit was hardly encouraging. As she rolled over the ledge and lay there catching her breath she saw that the top of the cliff they had just climbed was a copy of the bottom. More random canyons through more imposing cliff faces. The massive mountains themselves still seemed to be a great distance away. She had a better view of the valley now. The men of the great host were like ants streaming in one direction. Then La Forge threw his leg over the top of the cliff. He waited on his knees for a moment. Sweat ran down his face and he almost seemed to be enjoying himself. “You promised,” Lissa began. La Forge held up a hand. He got to his feet and took off his belt. Then he removed hers and stored them in his pack. His sword went back to his hip, reattached to his thick, brown belt. He took a moment studying the valley as well, then led her toward another canyon. As they picked their way through the rocks he began to talk. “How much do you already know?” he asked. “About what?” He frowned. “About this? About those armies marching to war against the Rondian people? About me? About the five major kingdoms?” “Based on where you found me, I think it is safe to assume I have not spent a lot of time in court. Kings and queens and castles provoke great interest among the common folk, but out in the hinterlands, I was more concerned with putting food in my mouth.”

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“Artimus Abnell. Your king, my king, rules over the largest of the five, the old Rondian province, with his throne in the Castle Merlick on the River Spoon.” “I know that much.” “Of course.” He paused, inspecting the sky once more before seizing on a course and looking over his shoulder at her as he talked. “There has been trouble recently among the five major kingdoms. Do you understand the way it has worked for at least the last fifty planting seasons? If the major kingdoms become engaged in a common issue then three of the five can decide the issue and the decision is supposed to be binding. It is called the Council of Five, made up of us, the Lorre folk from the mountainous coast, Lindou, in whose lands we travel now, the Glaserathe, and the vast land holdings of Purdoem. This Council has prevented war and encouraged a time of peace and prosperity in our lands.” La Forge held out a hand to help her over loose rock. “All right, I know most of that,” Lissa said. “A tribute was demanded by men from across the Great Sea.” “Everyone knows the Great Sea of Ice is impassable.” “Apparently it is no longer. King Abnell said the Rondian people would not pay the tribute. He refused to acquiesce to the wishes of the Council and now, I fear, they march to war against him.” “All right. Get to the part that involves me getting swallowed by sleeping valleys and climbing with boulders hooked to my waist.” “A child has been taken.” La Forge said. “Perhaps due to Abnell’s actions. I think I know where the child is, but I am not certain. Unfortunately, the castle where I think the

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child is being held also happens to be that of our longest standing ally. That’s where you come in. We are going to see if the child is there and, if so, you are going to help me steal him back. If not, we will slip away quietly like a pair of thieves.” The canyon was winding steeply upward. Lissa was talking around her labored breath. “Let me guess. Saving this child will involve more climbing.” “Like you have never seen. Our way until the climb will be easy because the climb itself is acknowledged to be impossible. Fortifications by men are unnecessary when fortifications by nature stand in the way. In addition, on the way down we, you, will be more encumbered.” “I will be carrying the child in the sling? Trying not to drop him or bounce him off the rock face too many times?” La Forge paused, looking to the sky yet again to get his bearings. “Perhaps it is not the best plan, but it is the best plan I could come up with under the circumstances.” “Not the best plan? A day on some rock with a child hanging under me. I dropped a lot of rocks on small cliffs. This is not a plan. It is sure death.” “You’ve got that part right. We will get the child back, or we will die trying.” Lissa was angered by his words. “Who is this child? What makes the child so important that you would risk this?” “It is a boy, Lissa. King Abnell’s boy. He is heir to the Rondian throne. And the child’s life is more important to Rondian power than I could even begin to explain to you right now.”

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Lissa was too stunned to respond. The climbing, the child she would have in her possession, this was bad enough. For it to be the heir to the Rondian throne, it was beyond her comprehension. “You asked for the truth,” La Forge said to her prolonged silence. She voiced her troubles. “This has nothing to do with me. The ground where you found me has switched loyalty from one kingdom to another ten times in my lifetime. You need a climber. You need a thief. There had to be more capable people in King Abnell’s employ than I. Why go out of your way to that inn? Why me? La Forge stopped. He took hold of her shoulders, making sure she got every word of what he was about to say. “Lissa, it is as clear to me as it can be. It is written in the skies, and in what your spirit says to me. I found you because you needed to be found. You were crying out to be found. It is about the heir. You will do for that child what I have done for King Abnell.” “I will hide him in a pile of dung when his enemies come to kill him?” La Forge smiled even while his words chilled her heart. “Perhaps you will think of a better place. But you are right. His life will be forever intertwined with yours. And your power will be forever linked to his life. Lissa, thief of the Rondian plains, I believe you are destined to become the next King’s Warrior.”

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CHAPTER 12

“What do you know of your mother?” the King’s Warrior asked. It was an odd question given their location. Lissa’s fingers stabbed at the slight indentations in the slick rock wall. She looked to the sky and felt like she could touch the stars. The ground, however, was a dark, indistinct mass far below her. The thief was happy the night prevented her from seeing how high they were on the cliff. She had little fear of heights, but she had never been this high either, and at least the darkness prevented the possibility of testing that fear. After days of hard travel they were finally climbing toward Carre-Routh, traversing the almost sheer rock face guarding the rear of the castle housing the throne of Lindou. It was for this rock face that La Forge had trained her. This was the end of their long journey and the hope was that the Rondian heir was being held somewhere in the darkness above them. La Forge sat beside her, leaning back on his harness and fully trusting the spike that held him to the wall. Despite her best efforts, Lissa did not quite trust his climbing equipment, and both hands kept exploring the rock as they talked. “I know next to nothing of my mother,” she said. “Why do you ask?” “The art of magic is in the blood, usually passed down from the mother’s side,” La Forge said.

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“So now you're willing to talk about the arts. Up here among the birds?” For the last two days, as they had trekked toward the base of the great wall, she had peppered him with questions about magic, about his life, about everything. Never considering herself a chatterbox, after a period of time with La Forge, she could not resist. Since blindsiding her with the statement about becoming the next King’s Warrior, La Forge had given her crumbs of information, offering next to nothing, speaking rarely, and never of any consequence. She felt that as they got closer to their destination the warrior was closing in on himself, preparing for what lay ahead. So the question about her mother while they hung on the rock face came as something of a shock. She had come to suspect that nothing La Forge did was without reason, so she denied him the satisfaction. Instead of answering any more of his questions, Lissa retrieved her spike and climbed into the darkness.

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They found a ledge, no more than half a pace wide. She could not sit comfortably on it because the rock jutted out above the ledge, but, by stretching her body along the ledge, she could finally rest her weary arms and legs. La Forge did the same, and they lay head to head, almost within the clouds. The thief could not remember ever being so tired. The climb seemed endless. Her fingers, strained from pressing into tiny crevices, felt like they were on fire. Her shins and

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hips were burned and bruised by the constant banging against the wall. La Forge promised her the castle was not much further, but he had been saying that for hours. Even now, as she leaned out and looked up the dark rock face, the light of the moon did not provide enough radiance to see the top. Her fear was that the light of the sun would not illuminate the far off crest either. “Your mother,” La Forge said, “Do you know how she died?” “What is it with the magic and my mother all of a sudden? I am not scared of this wretched rock. I don’t need you taking my mind off the climb. I’m fine.” La Forge laughed. “Then let’s talk about this climb. Look at this cliff. Nearly sheer, we are almost among the clouds. Do you think you are doing this without help? You think you have just scaled this sheer wall with plain physical skill and grit?” Lissa turned her head so she could look at him, but La Forge did not do the same, so she was looking at the top of his head and his graying hair. “What are you saying? That you are helping me? That you are using magic to get me up this cliff?” Again, La Forge laughed. “Young lady, you have seen what the use of conjuring does to me. I am getting on in years. It is all I can do to get myself up this rock.” “Then what? What are you saying?” As usual, La Forge did not directly answer her question. “Where did you learn the skills of the thief? The picking of locks, the disappearing into the night, the ability to get where you want to be without being seen?” “I don’t know. I just always could.”

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“There was no apprenticeship?” La Forge asked. “No rogue of the streets who taught you such talents.” “There was one who wanted to teach me, only I quickly found that his interests were on more than the art of thievery. He had little to pass that I could not already match.” La Forge chuckled. “Lissa, you have always had the skills of the conjurer, whether you knew it or not. You have used the arts to ply your trade. And now you are using them as you climb this mountain. Do you think such a feat could be accomplished by the average man? No. Without magic, you would be long dead, strung across the rocks below us.” Again Lissa did not give him the satisfaction of a response, even though her head swam as she thought about the possibilities of his words. Why would he say these things to her now? What did he hope to accomplish? The thievery had always come easily, requiring little in the way of training or practice. Now this great warrior was telling her she, a common thief, was rich in the arts and due to serve a great king? Lissa shook her head as the night threatened to close in around her. Even though she knew she should have questioned his motives, somehow she also sensed what he told her was true. It just felt right in her heart. High in the darkness, perched on the edge of an unassailable cliff, the thief asked herself the same question she had before: what did the great Morgan La Forge really want with her? She was a natural skeptic; her life experiences had made her that way. When La Forge had told her that she was to be the next King’s Warrior the cynic in her had shrugged that off as the feeble enticements of a man who wanted her to do something

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else. Who wanted her to help him accomplish his task. Now she began to have her doubts. It was farcical, but she saw no advantage he gained by such words. What could a great warrior, the right hand of the king, gain by lying to a lowly thief in the outlands? Was it possible that La Forge was telling her the truth? Was she truly to be the next King’s Warrior? Lissa Arethaddle had lived the kind of life where such thoughts could not even be considered in her dreams.

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CHAPTER 13

It was just before daylight when the slick rock wall beneath her fingers turned to chiseled brick, stacked one on top of the other in an orderly way that nature never could. She rubbed rough mortar between her fingers and it felt like sand. Lissa stopped, signaled La Forge below her, then quietly tapped a spike into the surface just below the bricks and waited for him to climb beside her. Once he had tapped a stake into the rock face, the warrior sat back in his harness and tried to study what was above them. La Forge kept his voice low. “We must be off the castle walls and back down on the cliff face by daylight, which gives us an hour or so.” He jerked a thumb over his left shoulder. “The rock face curves back around behind us and there is a tower back over there. The guards in that tower are looking out at the road that approaches the main gate that separates the castle from the city beyond it, but if one of them happened to look this way, and see us back here, we’d be in a bad spot.” “Where is the child?” “If he is here then I’m guessing he would have to be in the least assessable part of the castle. Up high and away from common areas. There is a locked window at the top of this wall. We have to get inside that window, then he will be in one of the rooms at a

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landing off a short spiral staircase. I suspect there will be some sort of servant in the room with the child. I don’t know about guards.” “And you know all of this how?” “A bird told me,” La Forge said. Lissa stared at him. “You are mocking me? Here? After all we’ve done?” “I am not.” Lissa knew her voice was too loud. “We have accomplished all this, we have climbed this great rock, on the word of a bird?” “It was a sparrow,” La Forge said. “It is true that sometimes sparrows are known to exaggerate, but I chose to trust this one. I knew his mother very well. You are ready?” Lissa was not. It was all too much. But there was no other choice. “A bird?” “If it had been a robin, I would understand your concern.” All Lissa could do was shake her head at him. “Straight up?” “And a little to your right, I think. Let’s leave these spikes here and we’ll come back to this point once we search for the child.” Lissa launched herself up the wall. It was undemanding. The bricks of the castle left deep, large indentations. After toiling for so long, she was ready to put her feet on solid ground and she made short work of the rest of the climb. The window was where La Forge said it would be, with a window ledge big enough for her to crouch on. The wood securing the opening was oak, and dense. It was also locked. Lissa braved one glance over her shoulder. It was like all of mankind was spread out before her in the smolder of light just before dawn. Lights from different villages

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dotted the landscape, and to her left, near the horizon, there was a bright mass that had to be a large city. She could see through the mountains to the slice of open land that would be the sleeping valley. Beyond that, were the dark crags that signaled the Rondian border, from whence they had come. Just considering the feat they had just accomplished made Lissa feel dizzy. Then Lissa put away such thoughts and concentrated on the task at hand. She placed her head against the wood and listened, hearing nothing from inside the castle except the silence of night. The thief took a small sliver of sharpened steel from her pocket, wedged it between the wood, and began sawing through the bar within. Her efforts sounded thunderous. If there was a guard just inside the window, then the ledge would not be a very good place to fight from. She cut through the bar, then nodded to the warrior. La Forge, who hung just below the ledge, closed his eyes and whispered something, then gestured for her to continue. Lissa held her dagger in her hand as she allowed the doors to swing toward her. Nothing happened. The window opened onto a narrow landing of stairs, the spiral staircase La Forge had described. No one waited for them. It was absolute quiet, save the flickering of a small lamp that was fighting the draft the open window allowed. A red patterned carpet runner softened the stairs that had been chiseled out of rock. Bright banners and paintings adorned the highly polished stone walls.

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The warrior dropped lightly to the stairs beside Lissa, then pulled her behind him as he eased downward. As they descended, Lissa could hear a chorus of raucous voices, sounding very distant and muted, echoing up the stairwell. She could not make out individual words. There was an opening to their left, a hallway, while the stairs descended into more darkness. They stepped into the hall, illuminated by a single, weak, oil lamp. The hall was short, two doors on either side. La Forge pressed his head against the first door, crossed the hall, and tried the second, then he padded down the hall to the third and did the same with the fourth. It was the last one. He pulled his head away and nodded. This was it. Lissa stepped to the door and kneeled before the lock. Through the hole she could see a dimly lit, well appointed room. She retrieved another tool from her hip. In moments there was a slight click and the lock released. She stepped aside and La Forge entered the room. Lissa was one step behind him. There was a crib on the far wall. A four-poster bed dominated the space. A figure, perhaps the caretaker, slept in the bed. Lissa followed La Forge to the crib, wondering how they would keep the baby from crying out when it was picked up, something she hoped the warrior had considered before they scaled that impossible cliff and stole into the castle. And there was a more immediate matter to consider. If La Forge was holding the child, then would it be her job to dispatch the caretaker before he could raise the alarm? That turned out to be an unnecessary concern.

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The crib was empty. In fact, there was no down mattress in the baby’s bed, or blankets. The tiny bed showed no indication that it had been used any time recently. La Forge’s face was a mixture of confusion and anger. “He is here,” La Forge hissed. “Close enough to touch. I can feel his presence.” The annoyance passed quickly from his face. He indicated for her to close the door to the room, which she did. Then La Forge drew his sword, picked up the lamp and went to the bed. He used the point of his sword to draw the blankets back from the sleeping figure, then cast the light so they could see the resting face. La Forge gasped. He took a step back, the lamp dropping from his hand to the floor. Thankfully, the thick rug broke its fall and the globe within did not break. Lissa scooped up the light as the form stirred and rose in the bed. After an instant, the figure cast aside the blankets and stood before them, no alarm apparent on his face. He was a tall man, slender, with a kind, gentle expression and dark eyes. He was about her age, Lissa guessed, perhaps just older. But something was terribly wrong. She had watched the warrior climb an unassailable cliff, fight off half a dozen men, and neither event had drawn so much as a raised brow from him. What La Forge saw now sent waves of shock across his etched features. “It can’t be,” La Forge whispered as he stared at the man. “It hasn’t been thirty days.” Now Lissa was mystified. She held up the lamp further, stepping between the two men, one stunned and the other almost expressionless.

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La Forge did a strange thing. He sheathed his sword and stepped up to the man. He took the man’s face in both hands and began mumbling to himself. With a quick oath, La Forge released the face as if stung or burned by fire. La Forge quickly dropped to one knee, reaching for the hand the man did not offer, but he allowed to be held. “Your Majesty,” the warrior breathed. “We have come for you.” Still the man said nothing, did not so much as move. “Who is this?” Lissa asked. “Where is the newborn child?” La Forge cast his head sideways at her. “This is the boy. This is the heir to King Abnell’s throne.” “He’s not going to fit in my harness,” Lissa said. “No, not quite.” “But you said the heir was just a child? A boy?” “He was,” La Forge whispered.

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CHAPTER 14

The Face of Carre-Routh dropped into the gloom. They were back in the circular stairwell. The noises from below had ceased, which led Lissa to wonder if someone would soon be coming to check on the child. The man, the child, the heir, whatever he was, was with them, as stoic as he had been since they woke him in the darkness where the mighty Morgan La Forge took a knee before him. Lissa was too confused to think straight. What had happened to the child, and who was this man? If the heir could understand what they were saying, the myriad of confused questions that passed between them, he gave no indication of it. If he was at all daunted by the prospect of climbing down the cliff, it did not show on his face. It was hard enough even deciding how to refer to him. Before leaving the bedroom, Lissa had asked for a name, it seemed the thing to do, but La Forge had only shaken his head. “It was the second wife taken by Artimus Abnell. She died in childbirth and the mourning rituals prolonged everything. The child was stolen away before the naming ceremony. The boy has no given name.” Then La Forge waved to her for silence as he tried to explain it all to himself. “It has to be a curse of some sort. To age him in such a

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manner in such a short time. How could that be? Who is left capable of such magic? There is no one. That child is less than a year old.” “Well, somebody did something to him,” Lissa said. “Or he’s eating way too much.” La Forge looked at the expressionless face. “The body has aged, perhaps the mind has not.” Now Lissa was at the window, their unanswered questions behind them. Something had to be done. Already the sky was growing light, she could see the guard tower that had given La Forge pause. There was very little time for more indecision. “There is no other way out?” she asked. “There is a city on the far side of the castle. Only one road leads through the mountains, out of the city and down to the valley. We would never make it that way. We have to go down the Face. We must go back the way we came” He lightly tapped his hand on the wall. “There is no one left who could have done this.” “I think your focus is called for here. Perhaps you could figure that out later. I suggest we get moving unless you want to be target practice for the archers in that tower. I assume you're bringing him with us?” “Of course,” La Forge said. “You are positive this is who you think it is? That this is Abnell’s heir? Be good to know before we got out on the rock with him.” La Forge’s face hardened as he forgot his suspicions and zoned in on the task at hand. “Without a doubt. I put my hands on him. There is no time to explain the magic to you, but rest assured that Abnell blood runs through his body.”

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The warrior withdrew the harness from his pack. He took out a dagger and sliced the basket off the end of the line. Then he held up the pouch that she had carried so many rocks in and shrugged before he tossed it into the abyss. He began to tie what remained of the harness around him. “I will lash the heir to my waist. You will lead us down. He will follow you. I will come last.” “He’ll pull you off the cliff if he falls,” Lissa said. “Then I suggest you pick the best possible route,” La Forge said. “You’ll be below us. If we fall, we’ll knock you off the rock as well.”

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For a man with nothing to say, Abnell’s heir took to the climbing well enough. The only problem was that he stayed too close to Lissa, and sometimes moved too fast for La Forge. The warrior’s initial thoughts about the heir had been right. It was almost like he had the body of a young man, but the mind of an infant, except that wasn’t exactly right either, because he did not climb like a child. The heir watched where Lissa went and followed her motions exactly. A cry went up from the guard tower just before the three of them reached the bottom of the castle wall and got back on the actual cliff. For some reason the guards hesitated before launching any arrows, perhaps they doubted what their eyes were showing them: that three souls would be desperate enough

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to begin such a descent fraught with peril. By the time the guards recovered and began to shoot the three of them were far enough down the cliff to be out of effective range. Stopping just below the castle walls was impossible now. They retrieved their spikes in a hurry. After thirty minutes of harried scrambling, they stabbed spikes into the wall and spent a moment resting, the two of them on either side of King Abnell’s son. “It is a day’s ride or more around the mountains to the bottom of the cliff from the castle,” La Forge said, wiping sweat from his brow. “We will beat them to the bottom, and use the cover of darkness to put distance between ourselves and our pursuers.” “Perhaps,” Lissa said, then nodded at the heir. “If we make it down.” La Forge followed her line of sight. The heir’s arms were shaking. There was still no fear in his impassive face, but the physical strains of the climb were already obvious. Even as they rested, with spikes in the wall, the heir clung to the cliff with all of his might. There was something to be said about the thought that the heir’s body was working while his mind was not. La Forge tried to help him relax against the harness but the royal refused. He either didn’t understand, or didn’t want to. “All right,” La Forge said. “The best thing is to keep moving. Let’s see if we can get him down to that ledge where we rested on the way up.” “That’s a long way from here,” Lissa said. “It is not your place to question me right now,” La Forge growled. “Just get moving.” Lissa scrambled down the cliff race. The heir came behind her.

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After only a few feet she heard a grunt from La Forge and looked up. The heir had lost his handhold and was swinging off the cliff. She watched with horror as the heir swung out over space, then careened back into the wall. La Forge cried out as he held up both of them, his own arms quivering from the weight. Lissa climbed back up to the heir’s side, jammed a spike in the cliff, and attached the royal to her harness. He fought her briefly, hitting her with a flurry of slaps, but once he was safely attached to the cliff, Lissa scampered away from him. Then La Forge and Lissa tried to rest, as the impassive heir stared the rock wall.

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“You’re going to have to let him go,” Lissa called across to La Forge, who was positioned on the other side of their charge. “What?” They looked like two spiders surveying their prey, which hung helplessly in the center of their web. “La Forge, you said yourself the magic was helping us. Well, he can’t do it. We’ve barely started, and he’s already about to fall. This is impossible. He’ll take us all down with him, or it’ll take so long to get to the bottom that his captors will be waiting for us when we get there.”

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La Forge shook his head. “You don’t understand. It is more than just the life of the child. It is the life of the Rondian kingdom. Besides, I made an oath to his father that I would return his child or die trying. I will honor it.” Lissa couldn’t help but think that she had made no oath. “La Forge, he isn’t that child anymore.” “No matter his age. Abnell’s blood runs through him. He is heir to the Rondian throne and the key to Rondian power.” “Succession issues are that important to you?” “I said Rondian power. Not succession.” Lissa slapped her hand on the rock. “All right. Fine. Then how do propose we get him to the bottom of this rock?” La Forge looked across at her. “I have no idea.”

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CHAPTER 15

The Face of Carre-Routh became more treacherous as the day waned on. Dark clouds threatened rain, which would spell disaster for those trying to cling to its almost glassy surface. The whipping winds that came with the clouds were bad enough. Several times Lissa was forced to lock her hands and feet against the crevices in the wall, holding on for dear life as the howling wind threatened to blow her right off the rock. Worse was the daylight itself. During the night climb Lissa’s attention had been focused upward, on their objective. Any chance she had to observe their height was somewhat distorted by darkness. On this cloudy day, and with her focus on climbing down, there was ample opportunity to see how high they truly were. Lissa was not normally bothered by such things. But there was nothing normal about the Face of Carre-Routh. Or their predicament. The heir seemed to gain control of his facilities, or at least resign himself to their guidance. The shaking stopped, but he was almost no help when it came to climbing. La Forge produced another section of rope and the warrior and Lissa now both had him tied him off on their waists. As they dropped him below them, they struggled to come side by

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side down the polished cliff. Most of the time the heir just dangled beneath them over the vast empty space, flailing madly for a purchase when he was unable to touch the rock. La Forge said nothing and his hardy face had turned pale. The effort of the climb was taking its toll on the old warrior. Lissa fared little better. Her breath came in ragged gasps, her hands were skinned and bleeding, as were her knees, as she sought to meld her body to the rock. It was a test beyond anything she had ever endured. Never before had she known such agony. They stopped twice with the spikes, barely able to rest with the added burden of their man-child, then pressed downward for the one ledge that could offer them a true respite. Lissa and the warrior knew their pace was too slow. They didn't reach the small sliver of rock until the middle of the afternoon. The ledge was just wide enough for them to lie lengthwise, placing their charge in the middle, his head near Lissa’s while La Forge lay at his feet. They deemed it safe enough to untie from each other and give their wearied limbs a chance to recover. Lissa massaged her waist where the weight of the heir had cut deep grooves in her skin, although her fingers were too weak to provide much relief. They were now halfway down the mountain. Even with the sun ensconced behind racing clouds, they could see that the afternoon was wearing on. “Is there anything else we can do?” Lissa called over the stinging wind. “Something to get down faster.” “We will continue as we are going,” La Forge called from the other end of the ledge. “If the men of Lindou are waiting for us at the bottom of the rock, then so be it.

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But any faster and mistakes will be made. I will think of something when the time comes.” “We’re going to be target practice thanks to you,” Lissa whispered to the unspeaking, unresponsive heir, whose head was near her own. She continued to rub her waist where the harness had been tied, feeling like the bottom half of her body was being stretched away from the top half. “This isn't going to work,” she said to no one after a few moments. “We’ll never get off this cliff alive.” When she looked up the heir met her eye. For an instant, she got the impression he had understood her, that perhaps there had been some comprehension of her words. Unfortunately, Lissa did not have much time to dwell on that observation. Still staring at her, the heir to King Abnell’s throne rolled off the ledge. One second their eyes were locked, the next he was gone. Lissa screamed. La Forge desperately grabbed for a foot, then lost his own purchase on the ledge and would have fallen if not for Lissa diving toward him and latching on to his legs. It had been too sudden to react. The heir had been right there, staring at her with his blank eyes, then he was gone, of his own volition, over the side of the ledge. La Forge cried out, a long howl of agony that was lost to the whipping wind. As she struggled to hold on to La Forge’s legs, Lissa watched the heir plummet downward. The body never reacted, never jerked violently, just tumbled end over end, falling through the air, until the vastness of the awesome space erased him from the human eye, well before making impact in the canyon below.

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CHAPTER 16

In the first instant after the heir rolled off the ledge Lissa thought Morgan La Forge was going to launch himself after him. In fact, had she not have grabbed the warrior’s legs so quickly, she failed to see how he could have prevented falling. La Forge continued to cry out in anguish as she tried to haul him back to safety and once she had him back on the ledge his eyes were momentarily wide with panic. She called to him, yelling his name above the wind, as they crouched on that sliver of rock. La Forge teetered on the edge, literally and figuratively. She latched on to him. His eyes were so crazed, his muscles so tensed, Lissa began to fear that the large man would pitch himself into the abyss, pulling her with him. She redoubled her efforts to penetrate his craze, clawing at his face as she screamed his name over and over again. Then, her voice suddenly seemed to reach him. His blue eyes blinked a few times. His head spun and his eyes locked with hers, actually seeing her now. He started to nod. In a measure of his great control, La Forge steeled himself. The very expressions that had seemed so out of place on his steady face were wiped away and, without another word, he gestured for her to get off of him. Still not certain of his intentions, Lissa eased down the ledge, prepared to grab him again should La Forge do anything.

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He did not. La Forge checked his harness and readied himself to continue the descent. For a few long minutes, as the wind whipped around them, nothing else was said about the outburst, or the terrible event that preceded it. Lissa still felt the terror lingering in her body when La Forge finally said, “Perhaps this was as it was supposed to be after all. Perhaps they had poisoned his mind, as well as his body, and this was nothing but a great waste of my time and our resources.” “All of this was just a way of getting you away from the Castle Merlick while the invasion is underway?” La Forge thought about his own words, not hers, then nodded his head, a decision made. “We must hurry. We must get off this mountain and on our way to Castle Merlick. Now King Abnell will need me more than ever.” This time La Forge did not wait for the thief to lead, scrambling down the cliff and letting her follow. After only a few minutes, she began to see who the true climber was. His course was steady and his pace very fast. They climbed the rest of the daylight hours, pausing only once, before reaching the canyon floor at last. Lissa had never felt such relief as she did when her feet touched the loose rocks at the base of the cliff. She patted La Forge on his back, and was about to say something, but the warrior already had other things on his mind. “Rest a moment,” La Forge quietly ordered. “I will seek out the body. If it is possible, I will carry it back to his father.” Lissa needed no further encouragement. The elation of being on the ground again only provided a momentary surge of energy. She was spent. As the warrior slipped off

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into the growing darkness she collapsed against a rock, letting her head drop onto her chest. In a few moments, she slept. Or perhaps she only imagined sleep. For many years she had trained her body in the art of vigilant rest. Those who would do her harm could approach at any time, and at no point in her life had there been someone to share the burden of the watch. Despite her extreme fatigue, she was instantly alert when she heard the noise down the canyon. She knew it was not La Forge, for the King’s Warrior moved with a sure foot, while these steps seemed hesitant and stumbling. A scout from Lindou, she thought to herself. They had watched the descent from a distance and now the soldiers were sneaking into the valleys, seeking the party that had somehow escaped the treacherous face of Carre-Routh. She did not know how many others might be out there, watching. The slightest movement might give away her position. Without raising her head, Lissa scanned what she could see. Nothing moved. Then she heard the sound again. Someone was out there, their boots dragging in the loose rock. But only one? Of course, she thought. There was a maze of canyons along the base of the cliff. Lissa and La Forge could have descended into one canyon of many. The main party of Lindou soldiers probably waited at a central location while scouts went into each canyon to find the intruders who had been crazy enough to attempt the impassable face of CarreRouth. Lissa wished La Forge would return. Facing one man in the dark canyon did not concern her, in fact, the prospect of the hunt sounded enticing after the extended time on the wall, but she did not know if La Forge would want the scout dispatched, possibly sending up the alarm as to their whereabouts.

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Her wish was soon answered. With no warning, La Forge appeared beside her. There had been no hint of his coming, suddenly he was just there. “They are already among us,” La Forge breathed into her ear. “The heir’s body is gone.” “Gone?” “I found where he landed. There is a great indentation in the dirt. But the body is gone, and it was too dark to track where they took him. Time is short. We must move on.” Lissa nodded in the direction of the noises she had heard, then turned her head to get close to his ear. “There is one over there, of that I am sure.” La Forge nodded. “Then we shall hold to the other side of the canyon and avoid contact at all costs. Follow me.” As carefully as she could, Lissa eased up from her resting spot and followed La Forge into the rocks. They moved quickly, hugging one of the canyon cliffs until it had shrunk into something little taller than a castle wall. “We’ll go up the rock here,” La Forge instructed. “The party will be waiting for us ahead. We’ll get up among the larger rocks and strike due south. We'll use the mountains as a shield and follow the same course as the invading army. Once we are clear of the mountains, we'll cut behind them and use the River Spoon as our guide south. For now, there are plenty of game trails that will take us on a parallel course with the sleeping valley.” “Game trails? Through the mountains? How long will that take on foot?” “A long time if we were going to be on foot.”

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“We are not? Are you going to capture some wild horses? Or will you magically sing out and produce the animals out of thin air.” “No,” La Forge said, and perhaps his wolfish smile would have flashed had he not been beset with grief over the lost heir. “Our horses will be waiting for us somewhere up ahead.” Lissa started to climb the short wall. “Our horses? How would they know where to find us?” “Simple,” La Forge whispered. “That's where I told them to wait for us.”

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CHAPTER 17

As a thief, Lissa survived on her instincts. Sometimes her heart told her things her mind could not. It was like an extra sense, something that protected her when her eyes and ears and nose did not. And by the time night was falling, she was sure they were being followed. “It is no concern,” La Forge said to her suspicions. “If they have found our trail and followed it, they will also be on foot. The horses are a few days ahead. After meeting up with them, we will easily outdistance our pursuers.” Lissa looked back over her shoulder at the rocks, which displayed nothing. Still, she was certain of what she felt. “There is only one back there,” she said. “And what trail? How does anyone follow our path over barren rock?” La Forge looked back as well. His age was starting to show. His strong face was haggard, his eyes stained red. “There are ways. Worry not. In this country we will see our pursuers well before they catch up to us.” To call them game trails was being generous, or else the game was very small. The paths over which they trudged hugged the sides of canyons and cliffs, often with sheer drop offs on one side and jagged rock on the other. Their way was littered with broken rock from the formations above. More than once they heard rocks breaking loose

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and bounding down the cliff. Thankfully, a full moon broke through the clouds, casting bright, white light on the path they followed. La Forge led them south and east. He rarely stopped to consult their direction, and once he chose a path they never had to back up. “How did the King’s Warrior end up on such a journey on his own?” Lissa asked after a few more hours of silent marching. “Wasn’t there someone else King Abnell could have sent?” It was just something to say. An effort really to convince herself that the man in front of her was still there, still struggling just like she was. She was surprised when La Forge decided to answer. “The story is a complicated one. The Council of Five was falling apart. It has been seasons in the making, but the troubles have been more frequent as of late. Then I provided some information that led King Abnell to suspect our longest standing ally, Lindou, had betrayed him, and that they were the ones who had stolen away his child.” “Why didn’t you tell the other Council members? Let them accuse Lindou?” “My information was mined from the arts, not something we can announce to the other members of the council, given their aversion to such practices. To have marched a Rondian army to the gates of Carre-Routh without foundation would have been an act of such aggression as to invite war by all on the Council of Five. And yet, a father cannot give up any slight hope for his son, especially knowing there will not be another, as his wife did not survive the birth. You see, Abnell is not a young man. This is his second wife, his first having died years ago.” “And the first wife produced no heir?”

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“No,” La Forge said. “For weeks, I used the arts to search for the lost boy, to confirm what I suspected. When I found out about the infant being held at the top of Carre-Routh, I knew it was the boy, and I offered to go get him.” “What does this have to do with me? You came down that cliff easier than I. You could have brought down the child yourself. What does a thief offer someone as powerful at the King’s Warrior?” “I told you the truth when I told you why you are here.” “Yes, but why did you need me on that rock?” “Lissa, sometimes you learn things for a reason. And sometimes you learn things when it is time.” “Typical answer from you,” Lissa said. “You told me I was to be this heir’s warrior. You told me I had a place at his side.” “I did.” Lissa hesitated, then plowed on. “Now he is dead. Where does that leave me?” La Forge turned toward her and she felt like he was seeing right through her soul. The insecurity she felt. The anger. Something wonderful and, until now, totally impossible had been presented to her. Something that would change her life, take her away from a day-to-day existence of feeding on the carelessness of others. And now her greatest fear was that it was all gone, that she would be forced to return to her old life. And to even have such thoughts, given what had happened to the heir, made her feel small and petty. La Forge offered her a gentle smile. “It is all right to worry about such things. I don’t know what this means for you. Sometimes the visions given to me through the use

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of the arts are not perfectly clear. But I know what I saw. I saw you in battle at the side of King Abnell’s heir. You were in a field, surrounded by your enemies, just the two of you. You were… you were… very powerful.” La Forge shook his head. “Perhaps that vision did not take into account the magic of another, who would use their art to turn Abnell’s son into a man with the mind of a child. Or perhaps that vision did not take into account my failure to protect him once we had him on the rock. Either way, it appears that my failure will forever make this a question with no satisfactory answer. A question that can only be solved by time.”

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“We are being hunted by a Septenrule,” La Forge said, standing beside her as they studied their back trail. “Your instincts are very good. Given our lack of trail, and the speed with which we have moved, it is all it could be.” “A what?” Lissa asked. “Some question if they even exist,” La Forge said. “Four legged creatures, not unlike a spider in appearance and not far removed from man. Trackers of the old world. And killers. Mountain dwellers. Some say they can only be conjured through the arts. Our path has been indiscriminate. We have climbed cliffs. We have forded streams. We

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have used every manner of hiding a trail that I know, and we have done most of it on rock. No man could follow us through that.” She did not like the concern in his voice. “Is the creature that bad?” “Bad? Yes. But that is not what troubles me. There is more. It is believed by some that the Septenrule was from the old world, personal servants to the Isla Dane, a great conjurer who ruled these lands and established what is now the kingdom of Lindou. Summoning such a creature would take awesome power. I would hesitate to even mention such a possibility had I not seen what befell Abnell’s infant son.” Lissa studied the barren mountainside as she talked, “What was done to that child, to age him like that, such magic is beyond you?” “Something as complex as that? I could not even come close. I did not think there was anyone left who could. There, did you see it?” Lissa wanted to shake her head, but she, too, had seen the movement in the rocks. To determine what it was from such a distance was beyond her, but at the sight La Forge nodded his head grimly in confirmation. Lissa shrugged. “Well, if we can’t outrun this creature, then we have to fight.” La Forge grinned and the pall that had been over him lifted, if only for a second. “I like your spirit, young lady, but we shall not tackle such a creature yet. It is not only the creature that worries me. We will continue to flee and learn what we can of our pursuer. As long as he does not force us to deviate from the path I have chosen, then the Septenrule, if that is what it is, does us no harm.”

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Lissa looked at her companion, watching his deeply etched face as he studied the landscape. As such, she did not see what La Forge saw next, although the reaction on his face was enough to cause her alarm. “What did you see?” she asked, turning to see what he had seen. “The creature closes too fast? We must make haste?” “We must slow down,” La Forge said, his voice turning to stone. “I want to get our pursuer closer to us.” Lissa could see nothing. The landscape of rocks was empty. “Closer? Why?” La Forge shook his head in disgust. “Because for now the creature does our work for us. In time, I will draw him to me and kill him, then take back what is mine.” “What are you speaking of?” La Forge turned back to the trail, walking away from her as he said, “The men of Lindou did not get the heir’s body from the cliff base. The Septenrule carries another on his back. Unless I am mistaken, it is the body of King Abnell’s son.”

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CHAPTER 18

Despite his words about allowing the strange creature to get closer to them, La Forge adopted a merciless pace. The ground they covered was brutal, a landscape of sharp, jagged rocks and an endless horizon of ice capped mountains. If Lissa thought the travel to Carre-Routh had been tough, she was mistaken. It was cold and this barren landscape offered no respite for the traveler, every step was awkward, a jump from one surface to another, always a rock to roll out from underfoot, and they also endured the occasional cascade of boulders raining down from above. She thought of it as a landscape that was in a state of constant revision, which did not make for easy or safe passage. Lissa considered herself sure of foot, but twice she fell, once gashing her leg on a sharp rock. La Forge said nothing and allowed almost no time for rest, pushing them day and night. Their provisions were long since gone, and they subsisted on the small rodents that the warrior trapped or the occasional berry growing on the rare scraggly bush. Still that was not nearly enough, and Lissa’s stomach rumbled and cramped with hunger. Of water there was no shortage. Ice-cold chutes of frothy run-off rolled down from the mountaintops, carving deep gouges through the rock. Many times each day they would ford these tricky streams, pausing only to remove their clothes and hold them high above their heads as they wrestled the fast moving water. Had she not been so tired Lissa

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might have been tempted to cross at a different site simply out of modesty. In her current state, she was too weary for such thoughts. She was so tired she feared if she lost her feet the frothy water would wash her away. For three days they traveled in such a manner, becoming animals themselves as they clawed through the mountains. La Forge seemed to choose the path of most resistance, leading them into canyons that would almost always dead end in a difficult climb. Lissa struggled to put one foot in front of the other. The horizon became a blur. She stumbled on her feet, concentrating only on keeping up. The climbs were the worst. Once, being careless, Lissa slipped, and only the sure, strong hands of the King’s Warrior kept her from plummeting to her death. After that first instance, Lissa saw no indication of the creature who followed them. It was just endless climbing and walking. Finally, the landscape started to smooth out and their travel became relatively easier. Just to keep herself alert, Lissa asked questions from time to time. Perhaps in an effort to keep her mind off their plight, La Forge responded. “You think your background was that different from mine?” La Forge said to one of her questions about a potential collaboration between a thief and a prince. There was an edge to his voice now, sharpened by the strain of their travels and the creature behind them with what it carried. “You expect me to believe you were a thief?” Lissa asked. “From time to time.” “You told me your mother was in the King’s court. That you were there when the first attempt was made on his life?”

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“All true. My mother passed shortly thereafter. I missed her passing, though, since I was taken from the court shortly after the attempt on Abnell’s life.” Lissa jumped from one rock to another as they tried to clear an area affected by a recent slide. “That’s some reward for saving an heir’s life.” “Actually, the royal family was trying to keep me alive,” La Forge said, making the same short jump. Where it seemed a great effort for her, the older man made the leap with ease. “A royal court is a complicated place. There were some who did not like my influence on the young prince. It was known that the blood of my lineage was rich in the arts. In those days the arts were heavily assaulted, by enemies its practitioners did not expect. There were many who wanted to ‘steer’ the young royal in other directions. I had to be disposed of in some way, and, in hindsight, this was the only way that kept me alive. I was sent to a school far away in the east, but when I got there the school was closed. I had no one. No money. No way to return to Castle Merlick, and not sure it would be in my best interest even if I could. So yes, to answer your question, for a time I was a thief. I preferred to think that I was a highwayman of sorts, picking only the best wagons and carriages to stop.” “You asked me about my apprenticeship as a thief. It would only be fair for me to do the same.” La Forge stepped past her, surveying which path to take as he spoke. “Mostly, I lived off the land. There was one cold season, particularly bad, when the pickings had been very slim, and an old man came along in a cart. A wisp of a man, dressed in little more than rags, despite the cold. He obviously had nothing of value, but

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in desperation I stopped him anyway, hoping at least for some food. His name was Andrees. Andrees of Vale.” La Forge gestured in the direction he wanted her to go, letting her lead the way as he looked over his shoulder. Lissa took hold of a rock and climbed up the short face that stood in their way. “The name means nothing to me,” she called down. “Andrees was a great wizard, one of the greatest, well versed in the magic art of Minstre-Veeha.” “Explain to me what that is?” Lissa asked. “A rough translation in our tongue would mean the bond of servitude of one to another. Minstre-Veeha was one of the most dominant magical orders in those days. There were competing orders as well, within the Minstre’sha practice and without, particularly from the Jundins, which was one of the most feared orders. Eventually, these competing orders did themselves a disservice. The populace never likes something it does not understand, and, given the chance, the people used the struggles between the orders and the ideals they represented, as a chance to turn against us all. These people were able to position the arts as a forbidden practice. It was called The Great Purging and lasted for generations. The Purging launched war after war. Many died on both sides. The small sect of Minstre-Veeha persevered when the others did not.” “How?” Lissa asked. “They hid in plain sight. Even those who practiced the arts kept them to themselves. Secrecy was the only way to survive. But perhaps survive is the wrong word.

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The practitioners of Minstre-Veeha held on. We prolonged the inevitable. But our numbers have finally depleted themselves. Now, it too, nears the end of its existence.” “What does Minstre-Veeha actually mean?” “Everything. It is my order. It is my power. It is my life.” “And you learned it from this man dressed in rags and getting held up by little boys? I mean no offense, but this Andrees, with his rags for clothes and empty cart, doesn’t sound like much of a wizard to me.” “Are you not listening to what I have told you? You must understand the times to fully comprehend it. The age of wizards was passing. It was especially hard on the Orders of Servitude, as the Minstre’sha Orders were known back then. Because of how they worked, forging one to another, they were viewed with great distrust. Minstre’sha, which had once been the right hand to powerful kings and queens, which had once helped rule this land with unvanquished power, allowed their name thrown into the heap with the common shaman and the village witchtress. Andrees had been too powerful to kill, but his enemies successfully banished him from the court at Castle Merlick a generation previous. He spent his time living quietly in the woods. Of course, our meeting was no accident. He was waiting for me, and in a way, I was waiting for him, too. I continued to live in the wilds, but the old man took me in. Every few days I would travel to his little hut for a warm meal. Sometimes, in the night, he would talk about magic, the art that was being lost to ignorance and the passage of time, and he taught me a few tricks. Those that you have seen me employ and a few more. He also planted the seeds for my future servitude under Minstre-Veeha. I am something of an oddity. A warrior and wizard in one body was not heard of in those days. But I hungered for the sword, and given the

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animosity afforded those of the arts, Andrees encouraged my training. And I learned things that made me valuable to my future king.” “In the old days there were those who were more potent than you are now?” “Even in my lifetime there were people with skills beyond your imagination. I thought I was the last. But who knows? Perhaps you will be a great conjurer one day.” She twisted her nose and La Forge smiled wearily. “The beast, is it still tracking us?” Lissa asked, feeling like there was a dark shadow on her back every time she turned away from the empty landscape. La Forge did not even look. “It still comes.” The thief forced herself to think of other things than the impending encounter with this beast. “How did you get back to Abnell’s court?” “War, of course. Andrees told me the time had come to claim my future. I enlisted as a common soldier for a battle on the Plains of Bernonum. My unit was hard hit, but fought well. My unit did things we should not have been able to do. We were commended by the young prince himself. He made no sign he recognized me at the ceremony, but afterward, I was sent for and brought back to Castle Merlick. That was the pivotal moment. The magic was changing both our lives. There was a connection between us that we did not understand. It turned out he could feel my presence as much as I could feel his. We built a strength between us that could not be breached. From there I was put in charge of the Prince Abnell’s personal guard. Later, Andrees led us through the old rite of attachment, and then I came to understand the true power of the order. After that, I rarely left Abnell’s side.” “Until now?” Lissa asked.

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“Until the time he needs me most,” La Forge breathed.

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CHAPTER 19

Rocks slid down the canyon wall above them as La Forge and Lissa followed a meandering stream. Gone were the noisy, boulder strewn rapids, replaced by a fast moving, shallow waterway with beds of colorful, smooth pebbles. Uncharacteristically, La Forge talked to Lissa of their course, and the path he wanted to follow back to Merlick. Had she not been so tired, Lissa might have wondered why he did so. During the night La Forge had shifted course. The gentler streams, as well as the diminishing peaks above them, indicated that they were coming out of the mountains. Perhaps the creature knew that too, as all during the morning Lissa had been troubled by the feeling that the Septenrule was out there somewhere, very close now. The sliding rocks, which had been common place in past days, but not in this more serene environment, were the first indication that her suspicions were correct. If La Forge heard the rocks, or attached any significance to them, he did not show it other than in the slightest pause in his step. Then he continued down the canyon, fording the small, knee-deep stream when the path on one side ended in a steep rock wall. “Assuming they out ran that party of Northmen, then the horses will be waiting somewhere up ahead,” La Forge said suddenly.

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“Thank the gods. I have never walked so far in my life.” “Do not waste time looking for them,” La Forge said. “They will find you. And remember what I said of our course to Merlick. If I can not get the heir back there, then you will be the next best thing.” “Why are you speaking in this manner? Where are you going to be?” “Wait a moment, then look over your left shoulder. About halfway up the wall, in a slight break in the rocks. Do not react to what you see and only look for an instant, like you are looking down our back trail.” She did as she was told. That instant was long enough. A chill went up her spine. The Septenrule stared at her through black eyes as large as her head. It had the body of an insect, with four long spindly legs that were stretched across the rock to give it purchase. And, even from that distance, it was easy to see that the creature was as big as four men. During the brief glance she saw no sign of the body La Forge said the creature carried. “He still has the heir?” Lissa asked casually as they walked on. “He did the last time I saw him, less than an hour ago. Although I do not see him now. That means our time draws nigh. Keep moving, quickly.” Lissa followed his orders, their pace picking up. “The last time you saw him? You could have warned me. What if he had attacked us? Would have been good for me to be ready for it.” “He will attack us only when he thinks it suits him, and you will have no role in this fight.” Lissa ignored the second half of his statement. “When will that be?”

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“Very soon, I think. I will take the creature. While I keep him busy, you must find the boy's body. For our struggle the Septenrule will hide his prey somewhere above us, somewhere close.” “Shouldn’t I help you kill the creature? Then we can find the body together?” “You can help most by doing what I ask. Find the body.” La Forge looked up briefly, then said, “I am bringing back a dead man instead of a crying child, but I will do the bidding of King Abnell. He will see his heir once more. Do you understand me?” Lissa could only nod her head, which the warrior didn’t see as he waded through the water ahead of her.

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Lissa spent the next two hours waiting for an ambush that never came. It was as if the creature was taunting them. Building up their anxiety and then letting them stew in it while he watched from the rocks overhead. Lissa felt some relief when trees popped up along their path, green conifers and sprouts of persistent grass that littered the landscape of rocks. The canyon they were in had narrowed, with walls only two or three times her size on either side of them. The only indication Lissa had that the Septenrule was ready to make its play was when she heard La Forge’s blade slide easily out of its scabbard.

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Then they rounded a corner and she saw that there was going to be no surprise attack. Having chosen its place for the confrontation, the massive creature straddled the path ahead of them, maybe thirty paces away. It was even bigger than she imagined. Its head, which rested atop a long hairy body, was almost to the top of the canyon walls. The Septenrule propped himself on a short tail and his back two legs, leaving two more legs free to wave in the air, or fight with. The creature’s gaping mouth hung open and made a frightful noise, almost like a constant scream. Lissa prepared for the encounter but La Forge barked, “Go back down the canyon and up the walls. Find the boy’s body! Do what I say! Do it now!” La Forge strode toward the Septenrule as Lissa stumbled back down the path. Before she turned a corner out of sight she braved one last look down the canyon. The creature loomed over La Forge, who had still not brought his blade to bear. The Septenrule reared even higher in the air, legs waving, then launched itself down at the warrior. In the blink of an eye, La Forge rolled to his left, jumping to his feet in time to nick one of the creature’s arms with his sword. The Septenrule howled, its cries echoing up the canyon. It spun to follow La Forge. Lissa forced herself to move on. She surveyed one side of the narrow canyon, then the other. She chose a side, the eastern one, and scrambled up the rock face. Even from up the canyon she could hear the blade clang against the outer shell of the creature, then more terrible howling as she reached the top of the wall. A gentle slope

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stretched out in front of her, with small hills leveling out into a great plain. The ice capped peaks loomed over the landscape behind her. She ignored the picturesque scene, focusing instead on the ground at her feet, searching for any sign that the creature had passed this way. She saw nothing as she began running along the ledge toward the furious battle below. You have to find the heir, she said to herself. Let nothing else enter your mind. It was out of the corner of her eye that she saw the fight raging. And what she saw caused her to stop in her tracks. La Forge moved like a vision, so fast her eyes could almost lose him. In one of the few instants he stood still, she could see there was blood on his forehead. His blade lashed out, then La Forge spun away as one of the creature’s legs pummeled the spot where the warrior had stood an instant before. The creature was faring worse. One of his legs hung useless, sliced through by the warrior’s sword. The scream had taken on a higher pitch. It was almost like the creature was calling for help. The warrior turned so that she could see him now. There was an awful scowl on La Forge’s face, mocking the creature as he slashed at it, then he would dive out of the way before shooting to his feet and slashing again. Lissa forced herself to focus on the task at hand. She would do as the warrior had commanded. She had to find the body, but she had covered the whole area. The dirt and grass were undisturbed. There was no indication the creature had passed this way. The realization dawned on her. She was on the wrong side of the canyon.

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Lissa was debating the quickest way across the canyon when her eyes seized upon something. A movement among the rocks scattered on the other side. Something that could not be true. A figure had been sitting against a rock. It rose, stepping in her direction. She wondered if her eyes were betraying her. Lissa stepped closer, the front of her boots hanging over the ledge. “La Forge,” Lissa yelled, her voice shaky as she was unable to contain herself. “Look! On the western cliff! The heir lives! The heir lives!” So many emotions went through Lissa’s head at that moment that she began to feel faint. The heir stepped closer. He was wearing the same clothes as before. There was not a mark on him. He did not appear to be hurt. From down in the canyon La Forge’s gaze followed her outstretched hand as she pointed to the other wall. Perhaps the warrior could see the figure over the crest of the ledge or perhaps the look on her face was enough, but La Forge believed what she said. And he was assailed with the same thoughts she was having. How was it possible that Abnell’s son lived after plunging down the face of Carre-Routh? How could that be? The Septenrule had no such distractions. While La Forge was looking up at the canyon wall the creature pressed the attack. A leg whipped beneath La Forge’s defense and dropped the warrior to his back. The creature jumped forward, intending to impale La Forge, who rolled out of the way before being corralled by another spindly leg. Something dropped out of the creature’s mouth, a cloud of some sort that must have impeded the warrior’s view. Still on his back, La Forge slashed blindly upward as the creature dropped its colossal body on top of him.

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Lissa screamed. She could no longer see the warrior’s body. La Forge was buried underneath the beast. The heir had walked to the ledge on the opposite side of the canyon and watched the proceedings with his usual blank stare. There was no sign that La Forge was going to get out from under the huge creature. Lissa was torn by indecision. Should she focus on the heir, as she had been instructed, or go to the aid of the warrior? Too much time was passing. Suddenly, she knew what she must do. Lissa drew her sword, backed up, held the blade over her head as she got a running start, then launched herself off the cliff.

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CHAPTER 20

The sword bounced off the creature’s thick hide, and so did she. Lissa grabbed frantically for something to hold on to as her momentum carried her over the other side of the Septenrule’s head. A black leg flashed out, latched on to Lissa’s ankle and threw her into the canyon wall. Lissa lost her sword as she dropped into the rocks. As Lissa writhed on the ground, the massive shadow of the creature settled over her. Remembering the strange mist that the animal had sprayed at La Forge, Lissa covered her eyes and mouth even as her lungs cried out for the air that had been thrust from them due to the impact with the rocks. She rolled to her left, retrieving her bow off her shoulder as she did so. Lissa stopped in a crouch, notching an arrow and releasing it as soon as the creature came into focus. The arrow went true, striking what she guessed to be one of the creature’s eyes. The Septenrule fell back on its haunches and roared in pain. Lissa could see that mucus of some type, perhaps the equivalent of blood, covered the Septenrule’s chest. La Forge’s still body lay below the flailing animal, his sword at his side. The warrior had found a way to pierce the armor before he himself had been hurt.

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Unable to find her own sword, Lissa sprinted to her left, letting fly with three arrows as quickly as she could. The flight of the arrows was too quick to follow but at least one lodged itself in the crease between the creature’s body parts. The Septenrule doubled its cries of agony. Then Lissa located the sword she had coveted so long ago. The sword that had hung on the hip of a stranger in a dark inn, with its rubies inset in the hilt that called to the thief's heart. The sword on the hip of the man she had been so foolish as to underestimate. The mighty man she had to save now. Lissa dove under the creature’s flailing legs. She rolled to a knee and reached for the warrior’s sword, intending to strike upward into the Septenrule’s exposed midsection. She grasped the jeweled hilt, sparkling with rubies. A pain shot up her arm, quickly racking her whole body. The sky seemed to open up. Bolts of lighting flashed down at her, followed by a long roll of thunder. She tried to release the sword, to get it out of her hand. She could not. It stayed there, burning her, sucking the life out of her. She was aware of the creature near her, also crying out in agony. Then the creature was gone. Finally, the sword released her, instead of the other way around. Lissa stared at her empty hand for a moment, her breath sounding raspy and far off, then she collapsed. The last thing she saw was a ruby in the sword’s hilt. She loved rubies.

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The world came back to her in a painful blur. She could see the sky first, although only as a bright light. She could distinguish nothing else, other than the brown lumps below the sky. Over time, the lumps came into focus as canyon walls. The pain was intense, but Lissa was able to roll over to her side, then worked to gain her feet. Halfway through the roll she remembered the sword, which she had not accounted for. Lissa cried out as she reversed course and fell back the way she had come, wanting nothing more than to avoid any physical contact with that bejeweled weapon for as long as she might live. Which, given her current situation, might not be long. There was no sign of the Septenrule as Lissa finally rose to her knees, then climbed to her feet. She reached out to a wall for support. That’s when she saw the body of the King’s Warrior. It all came into focus in her mind even if her eyes were lagging behind. The Septenrule, the sword, the lighting and thunder, and the heir, who had been alive. The discovery of which she’d blurted to La Forge, who had been so shocked he had let down his guard long enough for the creature to gain the advantage. Lissa pressed her eyes shut, willing it all to go away, but it did not. She stumbled to the side of the fallen warrior. She ran her hands across his body and through his hair. The quick inspection yielded no serious wounds. His face was the color of chalk, but when she knelt over his lips she detected the faintest exhaling of breath.

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The King’s Warrior lived. For how long, or how grievous his injuries might be, she had no idea. There was also no sign of his sword. Lissa stood and surveyed the canyon walls for the heir. Abnell’s son was also nowhere to be found. Even more troubling, the Septenrule was gone. Where? How serious were its injuries? Would it come back to finish the job? Lissa shuddered as she considered the last question. Her thoughts were slow to come to focus as she weighed her options. The most obvious one was to leave immediately. To strike out and leave La Forge, if indeed he lived through the night, to his own devices. She had no stake in his quest. The heir meant nothing to her. When La Forge originally found her she had sought a chance to escape, and surely there would be no better one than this. To her surprise, she found this intolerable, and even felt a twinge of guilt at considering such a path. She was a different person than the one who had coveted that sword in the inn. La Forge had shown her so much, he had opened up a whole new world of possibility to her. The thief in Lissa Arethaddle had come very far in a very short period of time. Then she thought about leaving La Forge in search of help. He had told her the horses might be nearby. She could find the horses and come back for him. That option also held little appeal, as the Septenrule might return before she could get back. In fact, the beast might even be watching them from the rocks as she stood there. Then she came to the only other option. She had to move La Forge. She had to

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carry him away from the scene of the fight and in the general direction he had been leading her. From there, she must set a course for the Castle Merlick. Perhaps if she got La Forge back to his king, then the power they shared could be used to heal him. She did not know if Morgan La Forge lived, but she feared the great city on the River Spoon would fall to its enemies if he died. Yes, her charge was to return La Forge to his master, if she could find the heir on the way and convince him to follow her, so much the better. Dropping to one knee, she took hold of La Forge and tried to lay him over her shoulder. His slack body was like dead weight. He was easily as big as two of her. She could not even come close to lifting him. Next Lissa took La Forge’s dirty cloak and tried to pull him behind her, like she had done before in the sleeping valley. Pulling him in a grass field proved much easier than in a rocky canyon. After ten paces, she fell over in a heap. Lissa looked for materials to make a trellis for pulling him. There was nothing but rocks. She felt like screaming in frustration, and perhaps she did. Lissa felt tears streaming down her face as she looked at La Forge and tried to think of something she could do other than abandon him. There was nothing. To stay meant to wait for the creature to return and that would mean certain death for both of them. There was some question whether La Forge would live anyway. She had to move on while she had the chance. And yet, she made no move to do anything. Lissa had survived a hard life by making tough decisions and thinking only of herself.

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Now the decision that should have been so simple was impossible. There had to be something else she could do. Lissa heard some rocks shift behind her. The bow was slung over her shoulder, impossible to retrieve in time. If it was the Septenrule behind her then she was dead already. But she would not go easy. She cleared her mind. The only weapon she had at hand was her dagger. Lissa spun, pulling the small blade from her belt. It was Abnell’s heir, standing ten paces away, his face as expressionless as ever. The boy held a sword in each hand. In one, his left, was Lissa’s own sword, the one she had dropped as she battled the Septenrule. In the other, his right, was La Forge’s long blade, the sword that had almost killed her. Of course, Lissa could not focus on the swords at all. Instead, Lissa stared closely at him, wondering if she was seeing a dead man, or a lucky one, or both. How had he survived the fall off the cliff? She had seen him tumbling into that vast space. How was he still alive? La Forge had told her he’d seen the place where the heir’s body impacted the ground. So how was he standing before her now? In addition, the heir was holding the sword of La Forge. When she had done so it had almost killed her. Who was this person? What kind of spirit or magic possessed him that allowed him to do such things. Lissa grunted in disgust. Her indecision was costing them precious moments. There wasn’t time for such thoughts. She didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter. Now she had a chance to do what the great La Forge had set out to do. She could return the heir, and the great warrior, to the city on the River Spoon. Somehow the heir lived, although not for long if she did not do something to get them away from there.

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Abnell’s son walked to Lissa’s side and offered both swords. Lissa took her own, then carefully indicated she did not want the other. The heir shrugged, then after a minute he stuck the sword in his belt, mimicking what she had just done with hers. His hands free now, the heir took a renewed interest in Lissa. She flinched, ever so slightly, as he reached out and brushed his hand against the tears on her cheeks. He inspected the moisture on his hand, sticking it close to his nose to sniff it. Then he grunted, which was the most expression she had seen from him, even more than when he fell off the Face of Carre-Routh, which he somehow survived. Which was impossible. Was he a dead man? Was he a spirit walking in front of her? Her mind was getting caught in a vortex of uncertainty. Lissa wanted to scream. She had no time for the heir or her fears. There was time only for action. Feeling better that she was at least armed now, Lissa turned to the task at hand. She had to get La Forge out of the canyon before the Septenrule returned to finish them off. She had to find somewhere safe for the King’s Warrior to hide while she went in search of the horses. Again she knelt, gently bringing La Forge’s head off the ground and trying to get his body over her shoulder. His weight was too much. La Forge would have fallen to the ground had the heir not stepped in and helped her lower him down. The heir looked at her for an instant and she thought she saw the faintest flicker of comprehension in those dead eyes. Then the heir picked up La Forge and threw him over his shoulder, as easily as a sack of grain. This done, the heir turned to her, as if waiting for further instruction. Lissa smiled at him. Then she laughed, only tears sprung up in her eyes again as she laughed. She laughed so hard that she couldn’t do anything else. So hard that she was

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forced to bend over and put her hands on her knees. The emotion exploded from her lungs, purging the fear and trepidation that had been lurking there for many days now. Perhaps such hysteria would have embarrassed her in another situation. From the heir, she did not have to worry about some condescending reaction. After her fit of laughter, Lissa felt better than she had felt in days, like she had eaten three meals, slept soundly for two nights. The laughter rejuvenated her like nothing else could. Lissa took one last look at the place where they had battled the Septenrule, then she turned, continuing their path up the canyon, trying to focus on her next step, instead of the implications of her efforts, and what it meant if she failed. It was easier said than done. Behind her, she could hear the man-child heir of Artimus Abnell’s throne with the hopes of the invaded Rondian people draped over his shoulder.

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CHAPTER 21

As they wound through the foothills, finally finding their way clear of the overhanging peaks, Lissa started talking to the heir. Nothing of consequence, mainly about La Forge and what they’d been through and what she was doing now, which she wasn’t really sure. She talked out of nervousness, jabbering away like a little farm girl. Lissa found the heir’s blank stares disconcerting. Even more troubling was that he was alive at all. If he was alive, and not some spirit sent to torment her. She knew some things about the undead. Things she had heard in dark inns like the one where La Forge had found her. Lissa had seen the heir fall from the Face of Carre-Routh. Now he was walking behind her, carrying the leaden body of the King’s Warrior, which brought to mind a host of questions she didn’t dare consider. Especially since she was alone in the wilderness with him. Something else began to convince her the heir might belong to the undead on their first rest stop, at a hidden brook that she only found because it gurgled softly within a small cluster of trees. Lissa cleared a place for the heir to lay La Forge down. Either he didn’t understand, or he didn’t want to, but the heir simply stood there and stared at her, with the large warrior still slung over his shoulder.

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After a few minutes of him standing there gaping at her, Lissa found it impossible to relax, so she threw up her hands and moved on, mumbling under her breath. As their trek through the hills continued, she realized that the heir was not tiring. He was carrying a large man, dead weight, and although his breath registered the exertion, the heir did not seem weary, or the least bit inclined to rest. This unsettled her even more than the fact he was supposed to be dead. Lissa found herself talking more, and walking faster. No words, or even expression came back from her companion, and he easily matched whatever pace she set. Lissa decided the heir needed a name. That might calm her down. He was the unnamed heir to Abnell’s Rhondian throne, and rightfully she should have referred to him in the manner of royalty, with a slew of long winded titles and much bowing and such. She didn’t think he would mind if she stuck with something simpler, given that he didn’t seem to understand anything she said, and they were traipsing through the hinterlands with the half dead military leader of a kingdom that was being plunged into war. She decided to christen him Phillip. Lissa called out the name several times, and got only that blank stare in return. He looked like a Phillip. A deaf and dumb Phillip, who might or might not be a spirit that would steal her soul in the dark of night. Still, assigning him a name made her more comfortable, and given the situation one took comfort where one could. Lissa took her bearings from the sun. She knew it was far from perfect. La Forge had said they would travel south and west, following a course parallel to that of the sleeping valley. During the afternoon she did her best to keep the sun off her right

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shoulder, hoping she was heading in the same general direction that the warrior had planned. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, they were walking steadily downhill, dropping into dense green forests and small fields of thick grass. The dirt underfoot felt good to her legs after walking on the unforgiving rock for so long. Lissa followed game trails until the overhead boughs completely blocked out the weak moonlight and they were forced to stop. She made a dry camp, not risking a fire. Phillip, after great urging, and much gesturing on her part, put La Forge down on a makeshift bed of leaves Lissa had constructed for him. As she had many times during the course of the day, she checked the warrior for signs of improvement. She could still hear his shallow breath, and if she held her hand on his chest, she could just feel it rise and fall. His face was ashen and his eyes, when she pulled back the lids, were unreceptive and dead. Lissa began to hope that La Forge had fabricated some kind of spell when the Septenrule dropped on top of him. She was not sure. He lived, although he did not seem to be improving. Even in the worst instances before, when the warrior had used his powers, he had recovered fairly quickly. Perhaps the creature held some kind of poison, which it had sprayed on La Forge. If that was the case, Lissa had no idea what to do about poison. But the creature had sprayed something on her, too. She had been tried not to inhale it, but she was sure some of it had gotten in and she felt fine. Then Lissa’s thoughts were disturbed when she heard something moving in the trees.

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She turned. Phillip stood at the edge of the clearing. She was surprised to see that his head was cocked to the side, still no expression on his face, but he had heard the noise, too. Lissa eased toward the sound, taking shelter behind a large tree. Leaves rustled, then a branch snapped. Something was out there. Her first thought was of the Septenrule. Perhaps it had been tracking them during the day, and now it would launch an attack under the cover of darkness. Then, as the sounds eased toward them, she knew it was nothing as sinister as that. Definitely an animal though, maybe two, picking their way through the underbrush. When she heard a quiet neighing, Lissa felt her heart rise. Their horses walked into the opening. Once again, tears sprang to Lissa’s eyes. Not lost on the thief was the fact that she had not wept in many hard years and suddenly she was crying openly like an infant anytime something good happened to her. The stallion La Forge rode walked right to the warrior’s side and nuzzled him, then stamped his foot when La Forge did not stir. Lissa talked gently to both animals, rubbing her own, but the stallion would not allow it. Both horses did allow her to remove their saddles, which they had been wearing for many days now. And the horse she had been riding allowed her to rub it down with pieces of dry grass. She removed their bits, then dug through their saddles bags for the lead lines and picketed them in the nearby grass. If the horses were hungry they showed no sign of it, apparently having weathered the days apart better than their riders’ had. The

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stallion was restless, staying on the end of its line, tugging a bit to be as close to La Forge as possible. There were few provisions left with her saddle, but there were some pieces of jerked meat and nuts, and for the first time since Carre-Routh, Lissa had more than a meager amount of food before sleeping. She offered some dried meat to Phillip, taking her own and showing him how to chew it and swallow. He took it from her and sat against a tree, becoming lost in the shadows. She knew when he tasted it though, because she heard a grunt of surprise. And she knew he liked it. In Lissa’s eyes it made him all the more human when Phillip got up and came over to her for more.

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CHAPTER 22

Lissa had the horses saddled before daybreak. She had been awake for hours. Dew had set a glassy sheen on the ground, leaving her cold and wet even with the blankets from their supplies. While she was working toward their departure, Phillip got up from where he had been leaning against the trunk of a tree. It had occurred to her to look and see if he was sleeping, but in the predawn gloom she had not been able to tell. Lissa found the day filled with promise. The horses meant mobility, and the opportunity to move La Forge quickly to someone who might be able to help him. They also meant speed, which could put them beyond the wounded Septenrule that was following them, if indeed it was. She and La Forge had been on a mission, and now she, a lowly thief from the Rondian Outlands, had a chance to fulfill that mission. Lissa could not help but swell with pride at the prospect. Once she had the horses ready for travel, Lissa turned and found Phillip standing behind her. He already had the wounded La Forge slung over his shoulder. “No,” she said to him. “He will go on the horse. Like this.”

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She tried to indicate how she wanted the heir to lay the wounded man across the saddle. Phillip seemed unwilling to give La Forge up to the animal. The stallion stamped angrily, like it understood the silent battle taking place. Lissa put her hands on Phillip’s shoulders and steered him toward the animal. She could feel his shoulders tighten. Then she felt the panic sweep through his body as they got closer to the horse. Phillip dumped La Forge on the ground, then twisted roughly away from her before they got to the stallion. He ran back to the trees while the horse reared and pawed the air. Lissa spoke soothingly to the mount as she checked on La Forge. He seemed as before. Phillip was obviously scared of the horses. He was not going to help her get the wounded man across the stallion’s back. Once again, Lissa took it upon herself to pick the warrior up. Surely, with the horse that close, she could manage to get him over the horse’s back. She struggled to get La Forge off the ground, but it was more than she could manage. She gestured for the heir to help her. Phillip would not move from his tree. She had the hopes of a kingdom in her hands and she couldn’t get a wounded man on a horse. She tried again, taking La Forge by the head and getting him to a sitting position before his weight became too much for her. La Forge slumped sideways. Lissa had dropped to her knees, clawing at the turf in anguish, when the stallion nuzzled her from behind. “What?” she yelled at the horse, wanting to yell at someone or something after the promise of the morning had been so easily extinguished.

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The stallion also dropped to his knees, rolling a little to one side. With the big stallion that low to the ground Lissa was able to turn the warrior face down, take hold of his boots, and drag La Forge across the horse’s body. As soon as she had done so the big animal stood, letting the unconscious La Forge drape over his back. Lissa fashioned some leather straps from a rein and tied La Forge to the saddle. Then she climbed onto her own horse. Her intention had been for the heir to ride behind her. Seeing his earlier reaction, she now knew that was not going to happen. Lissa urged her horse on. The stallion was not happy about being led, but agreed to follow after tossing his head a few times to let her know what he thought about it. Within minutes, they broke from the trees into a huge meadow, not unlike the sleeping valley they had crossed an eternity before. The horses were eager to go, taking to their path at a trot. When she looked over her shoulder, Phillip was jogging behind them, in a lumbering and unsteady gait. Watching him struggle to run made her feel sad, for him and for their predicament. Despite the speed of the horses, and their progress, she knew of the great uncertainty they were riding toward. She did not know what was wrong with La Forge. She wasn’t sure how to get them back to the Castle Merlick. And she wasn’t sure what King Abnell would think of his son, but she could only imagine what her emotions would be if the childhood of her own child had been forfeited to this expressionless man.

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Lissa turned her head around and focused her thoughts on the trail in front of them, even as she acknowledged the promise of the dawning day was now lost to their reality.

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Throughout the morning and into the afternoon they moved away from the mountains. As they dropped in elevation the cool air gave way to a heavier heat. The dense forests that dotted the landscape started to thin out, providing for massive expanses of rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Not that the eye could see everything. Twice during the afternoon they spooked large herds of game that had been hidden in the small dales between the hills. Lissa wasn’t sure if the horses sensed something she could not, or they simply were eager to move, but she had to hold them back to keep them from a full gallop. As such, the trot they held most of the day should have been a brutal, impossible pace for someone on foot. For Phillip, it was not. As she watched him at different points in time his lumbering gait became more fluid. It was like he was learning to run. And he seemed never to tire. The horses wanted to stop for water, Phillip did not. She would force him to drink, but she wasn’t even sure if he needed it. Lissa would also hold up La Forge’s head and place small mounts of water into his mouth and over his face. His steady, shallow

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breathing was all she got as a reaction from him. He did not seem to be getting worse, but he was no better either. Lissa longed for someone who could help him, but she knew it would be days before she could find such a person. So she traveled in the company of two men, and neither said a word. That left her ample time for thought. Lissa could not shake what La Forge had said to her about Phillip. That she would become the King’s Warrior to Abnell’s heir. She did not doubt La Forge. But the circumstances made her doubt his words. La Forge had told her he had been wrong before, he was obviously wrong again. Even if she was capable of being such a person, Phillip was not capable of being a king. “You get a great ruler,” Lissa whispered to La Forge during one rest stop. “I get a man child who doesn’t speak, rest, or die for that matter. For all I know, I’ve got a ghost.” The thought chilled her, but didn’t stay with her for long. Maybe she was getting used to Phillip’s silent ways and his blank, expressionless stares, or maybe she really was beginning to see something there that she had not seen before. Nothing overt. Nothing that could be described as real emotion. But perhaps there was a light in his eyes that had not been there before, a dim but growing illumination as he took in the world around him and began to comprehend it. After miles of running his breath would become labored and heavy, but his muscles never seemed to tire. Now instead of lumbering along with his head down, Phillip’s head was on a swivel, looking, watching, seeing the landscape as they moved through it. Lissa could not figure out what to make of him.

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As the sun started to fade toward fields of yellowed grass they stumbled on party of people. The group got closer than she would have liked, appearing out of one of the small ravines that also hid the game. When she first spotted the movement, Lissa had feared the worst- scouts from a war column. Invaders who would have felt compelled to chase them down now that they had been seen. Instead, it was a straggling line of people of all ages and means. She knew their mindset from their body language, from their slumped shoulders, their trudging march, their downcast eyes. They were marching on a course that would intersect with her own. The party numbered at least twenty souls, but had only two horses among them. Lissa did not doubt that she could circle around the weary lot with little effort, and feared that was, indeed, her best course of action, but this pitiful group had the one thing she lacked: information. Lissa had been following the general direction La Forge had indicated they should travel. She had forded several small rivers. Was one of them the headwaters of the River Spoon? La Forge had said something about traveling on the east side of the Rondian river. She wasn’t sure where she was, how many armies were in the field, or how to get to Merlick for that matter. She did not expect answers to all those questions from this bunch, but she knew they were running from something or toward something. They had some indication of what was happening behind them, or they would not have been plodding across the plains in such a state of disarray. At first, the appearance of Lissa’s party on the horizon caused alarm among the larger party, garnering an even more drastic reaction than Lissa herself had felt at the initial sight of them. A cry went up. The group began to scatter in different directions,

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then seemed to see the futility of it given the wide open landscape and the lack of horses. The group huddled together as Lissa walked her horse down the hill. She did not see any archers among the lot, so she directed the horses straight to them. In fact, as she got closer, she noticed the whole group was either infirmed or sick. There were only a few men, and they were well along in years. The children were dirty and tired. In her previous life, seemingly so long ago, Lissa had made a living out of measuring people: what they had in plain view and what they kept below the surface. This group was easy to read. What she saw was what she got. There was nothing hidden. In fact, hiding their predicament was beyond them. This was a defeated, destitute, nearly hopeless group, in short, about the saddest looking bunch of people Lissa had ever seen. A man stepped to the front of the crowd. If he was surprised at the sight of a warrior draped over a saddle he did not show it. Nor did he give much attention to Phillip, who stood warily away from the group. The man began with the questions: Who were they? Where was it that they traveled? Lissa did not answer. She was not comfortable at their current site, where they were exposed for miles in all directions near the crest of the hill. Instead of responding to his many queries, she instructed the whole group to follow her into a low ravine, out of sight to most eyes. She allowed a small fire from brush she had brought out of the forests. There was tea in her saddlebags, and the smell of it brewing brought smiles to the children’s dirty faces. They appeared to be a hungry bunch, but she had little left in the way of food to offer them.

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After placing La Forge on the ground beside the fire, Lissa picketed the horses nearby. Phillip stayed away, standing on a hill overlooking their campsite. She noticed that he was watching both the horizon and them, and wondered briefly how much he understood about the tenuous situation. When Lissa was ready to talk, she went back to the old man. Three others gathered with him. She asked the questions this time, starting with their identities. “We come from the city of Braderes, on the eastern border,” the man said. His white hair may have been clean and straight at one time, now it held the same frazzled look as the group itself. “I am Bogat, formerly of the Braderes Council of Leadership.” He said it like it should have meant something. It did not, other than he was some representative of King Abnell in that area of the Rondian Kingdom. “What happened in Braderes?” Lissa asked. “Why are you so far from there, wandering the plains of Lindou?” An aggrieved look crossed the faces of the men. “The girl knows nothing,” one of the men mumbled, indicating they sought the same thing from her that she sought from them. Bogat held out his hands in appeasement to this man, then leaned in closer and spoke with a hushed voice, not wanting to share his words with the women and children. “Braderes was razed to the ground.” Then he lowered his voice even more. “We were overrun in the night. It was said to be the Kingdom of Purdoem.” “The White Knights of the East?”

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Lissa’s knowledge of such things was limited, but even she knew of them. The exploits of the White Knights were known far and wide. In children’s stories these men were revered as warriors of valor and fairness. Destroying a city in the night, setting refugees out on their own, this did not sound like something to be attributed to such men. Another man spoke, sensing her disbelief. “The knights brought fire to every city in their path. Even those that sent emissaries out to the host in search of surrender were not spared. They were not in search of conquest. They were sowing terror before them. The men of Braderes were called out to fight in defense of our great city, as in times past, but this time we did not fare well.” This man paused, looking to Bogat for direction, who nodded with approval. The second man spoke again. “I did not see it, but it was told to us by another party that a great wizard rides with the armies from the east. A man in brown who conjured to cast aside those who try to stand before them. It is said that he clapped his hands and created such a thunder that the walls of the fortress city of Raceth tumbled to the ground.” Lissa wanted to be sympathetic to their plight, but she had her own problems. She also wanted information of her own. Information of value. Not the gossip of frightened refugees of war. “What of King Abnell and Castle Merlick? Have you heard anything about the great city on the River Spoon?” Bogat took over. “Nothing. But we have seen enough. For an entire day we hid in the trees as one host after another passed us. We saw the banners of Lorre and her mountain folk. And Lindou. It is said the Glaserathe hordes are also on the march. The Council of Five has turned on Abnell, for reasons I know not. But the King, even with the

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great warrior La Forge, cannot stand before this collected army. Merlick will fall, if it hasn’t already. You will find nothing in the direction you travel except for our enemies, and the despair they have wrought across our lands.” Lissa took a moment to consider what they had said. Merlick may have already capitulated. She might be going to all this trouble only to deliver the King’s Warrior and Abnell’s heir to the enemy. “What do you expect to find in the direction your party travels?” Lissa asked. “We are heading to Mountain Fjord, through Lindou and past the Lorre Kingdom, near the great sea. There is food and shelter there, and the hope is that perhaps the four Council members will not make the trek through the mountains after a few refugees. On the eastern front, word was sent for all refugees to travel there.” That sounded odd. That word was sent for Rondians to leave their own kingdom. Lissa knew nothing of Mountain Fjord, and did not care to learn more. Anything that involved hiking through more mountains held no interest for her at the moment. The man named Bogat got to his feet. Before Lissa realized what he was doing, the man was at La Forge’s side. “I am not vested in the art of medicine, but I know a few things.” The man called as Lissa jumped to her feet. “What has happened to this fellow?” “Nothing that worries you, sir,” Lissa said, hurrying to his side. “He is getting the care he needs.” Before she could reach him, Bogat had brushed away the hair from the wounded man’s face. “I have seen this man somewhere before. His face is familiar to me. So much so that----.”

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Bogat sprang back so fast he fell, landing in a sitting position. He pointed at the unconscious warrior, then at Lissa, stammering as he tried to place words to his thoughts. “He is getting the help he needs,” Lissa said quietly. “You are a traitor of the Rondian people,” the man said. “I am his friend,” Lissa said, her hand dropping to her sword. “What are you doing with him?” Bogat hissed. “What have you done to him?” Lissa was alarmed. She moved slightly to her left so the whole party was within eyesight. She wasn’t sure how many of the other old men were following their discussion. “As I said, Sir, he is getting the help he needs. We were attacked. It was a creature, called a Septenrule.” “A Septenrule? The word belongs to myths. There is no such thing.” “This from a man who talks of great wizards knocking down fortress walls? Perhaps you will share these doubts with La Forge when he awakes.” Lissa nodded her head toward the mountains. “We have come from there. We were on a mission for King Abnell when it happened. That is why I must get him back to the Castle Merlick.” If it was possible, the man from Braderes looked even more defeated. He slumped against the ground. “Don’t you see? Your errand is folly. If this warrior is not already at the head of Abnell’s armies then the fight is definitely lost. The city is lost. There will be nothing left by the time you arrive.” “It is my job to get him back to King Abnell,” Lissa said. “The things you speak of are beyond my control.”

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Lissa did not understand the greedy glint that surfaced in Bogat’s eyes until he said, “Those who march against our kingdom will not let a man like La Forge leave the Castle Merlick alive. But those who gather in Mountain Fjord will need a strong leader. La Forge could be it. A man powerful enough to rally what will be left of the Rondian people.” “The King’s Warrior goes to Artimus Abnell’s side,” Lissa said. “Surely you would not argue with that?” Bogat waved his hand in sudden dismissal. “We are all too tired for such a discussion right now. Lest us rest here. You and I will speak of what we shall do in the morning.” I'm guessing you are not so good at the day-to-day intrigue within the court, Lissa thought. Which would explain why you have been living in such an out of the way place as Braderas. Rest was now the least of the old man’s worries. Lissa knew that he wanted time to plot. Bogat wasn’t even trying to hide his intentions from her. Lissa watched as the man called the others into an impromptu meeting. The hunger in this group stemmed from much more than a lack of food, and their starving eyes kept darting toward the unconscious La Forge as the potential feast was revealed to them. Their defeated countenance seemed to lift, and the sorry lot of refugees took on a refreshed air. Lissa settled in next to La Forge, casting a glance over her shoulder for the heir. Phillip stood on the hill, looking down at her. La Forge’s sword was tucked in his belt.

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She wondered if Phillip would come to her aid when the refugees came after her. How many of them would she have to kill? This group was desperate. Her instincts told her the old men would not resist a direct confrontation, especially given the spoils on the victorious side of such a fight. She was still not sure of the correct path from this site. She knew that she needed to find her way to Merlick, as she had told these people she would. But of one thing she was sure: she wanted to hurt no one. She would slip away from the campsite before they came after her. Now she had to let a little time pass, let the distance of travel catch up to their old bones, let their weariness set in no different than the dark of night. Lissa knew she had to bide her time. She shut her eyes, giving the appearance of rest, when she had no intention of getting any.

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CHAPTER 23

The clouds that raced across the sky obscured the moon and the shadow of night fell across her face, then Lissa was able to open her eyes. The clouds were dense, but spotty and fast moving. Her window of opportunity was limited. There was not much time before the moon cast its pale light once more. The refugees, Bogat and the other men of the group, slept around her in a supposedly random pattern, but it worked out that they practically had her surrounded. They were taking turns sleeping, making sure she did not decide to leave in the night, which was exactly what she intended to do. Lissa knew what they were doing because she had seen the last “watcher” get up and roust the next one awake. The thief was not sure how she would fare against these men in open combat. Six men. They were older, and she suspected few of them had done much real fighting. Either way, she had to care for La Forge and Phillip, in addition to besting whatever blades these refugees might wield against her. But these were desperate men, who had lost their homes and way of life. She was not bloodthirsty and saw no need to hurt anyone who did not need it. As a thief, she understood the position these men were in, and knew she would have had the same thoughts had she been in their shoes. Still, it was a situation she did not think warranted too much contemplation. She would let them sleep, and simply slip away into the night.

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Lissa came to her feet in one quick, silent movement. She stepped through the men, pausing near the one who was supposed to be watching her long enough to determine that he had fallen back asleep. Bogat slept near Morgan La Forge. Lissa saddled the horses first, taking up their picket lines and preparing them to leave. Then she tied her saddled bag onto the horse she rode. The horses seemed to sense her tension, and did not move once she began working around them, so she was surprised when something stirred behind her. Lissa drew her dagger, turning quickly. It was Phillip, standing fifteen feet away and displaying his usual expressionless face. Lissa walked the horses toward the heir. He started to back away as she got closer. Lissa calmed him with flattened hands and offered the longest length of rope she had, so that Phillip was holding the horses, but was not too close to them. He finally agreed to it, holding the rope at arm’s length. Now Lissa went back for La Forge. This would be the hardest part. She would have to move him without disturbing the others. The easiest solution would have been to bring Phillip into the group to retrieve the warrior. However, Lissa did not have time to explain her wishes to the heir, nor did she trust his clunky feet to remain silent in such tight quarters. Lissa leaned over the warrior and listened to his shallow breathing. It was the same as it had been, as if La Forge barely lived.

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Perhaps she had underestimated the desperation of the man leading the refugees. It was the kind of anxiety that defied fear. As Lissa tried to move La Forge, Bogat made his play. It was pathetic. Bogat came at her from behind, moving like a herd of cattle. Lissa caught his outstretched hand and flipped him over her back, then drew the dagger again and held it to his neck. The blade gleamed in the moonlight, which had just come from behind the clouds. “One yell and they will get you,” Bogat whispered, his voice straining against the pressure of the steel. “It remains to be seen how they would fare,” Lissa said, pressing the dagger even harder against his neck. A pinprick of blood appeared, running lightly into his collar. “Rest assured, you would never know.” “I know what is on the road before you,” Bogat whispered. “You will never make it back to Abnell. You will deliver the best thing we have into the hands of the enemy. Merlick will fall.” “La Forge goes back to his king,” Lissa said. “The only thing we are about to decide here is what to do with you. Even with the knife to his neck Bogat was not ready to give up. “I am the ranking authority and I tell you this man is needed where we are going. What right do you have to take the King’s Warrior back to certain death?” “She acts on my word,” a hoarse voice said. Lissa was so surprised she stood, freeing Bogat.

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La Forge had lifted himself up until he was leaning on one elbow. “I have ordered her to take me back to King Abnell’s side. Anyone who interferes with these orders will meet a quick death.” Bogat seemed as surprised as she was. He scrambled to his feet, sliding from between Lissa’s legs. “Sir, I meant no disrespect. In your condition I thought you knew not the state of things. The invasion. The Council of Five has aligned itself against the Rondian people. Their betrayal is complete. It is hopeless. I only sought what I thought was best for---.” “Does Merlick still stand? Does King Abnell still live?” Bogat nodded. “For how long I cannot say, but our last word was that King Abnell was preparing the defense, preparing for a siege. That has been some time ago.” “Then I go to King Abnell, and you will let us go on our way.” Bogat nodded. La Forge struggled to get to his feet. Lissa jumped to his side, and he put his arm around her neck and used her as a crutch. He groaned as she helped him into the saddle, and slumped wearily as she took his reins in her hands and mounted her own horse. Other members of the refugee party were waking now. Bogat stepped out to the riders. “I am sorry for the way I have acted. Such times can spur rash actions. Remember where we are. Come to the Fjord if all does not fare well at the Castle Merlick.” The King’s Warrior nodded grimly as Lissa led him away. For a few moments she put the horses to a light run in case Bogat had second thoughts. La Forge teetered in the saddle, but managed to hold on.

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Lissa found herself smiling in the darkness. She had done her part. It had all been placed on her small shoulders and she had succeeded. The King's Warrior was indeed alive, and headed back to the threatened city on the River Spoon. And Artimus Abnell’s heir to the throne was jogging along behind him.

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Unlike his ability to deny his body a break on their trip to Carre-Routh, now the warrior seemed almost human. La Forge needed a rest before the sun rose. There was no activity around them as far as the eye could see, or more importantly, as far as the ear could hear. She reined in among a thicket of trees, careful to come back and cover their tracks once she had the warrior dismounted and comfortable. Phillip came with her, watching what she did before following her back to La Forge. “So the Septenrule carries venom?” Lissa asked again, picking up where they had dropped the conversation when they stopped for rest. “A powerful poison,” La Forge said. “My body was not prepared to fight the venom. By putting myself in a state of rest, I gave my body more energy to take on the poison. It was a state similar to sleeping, but I was also aware of what was happening around me. I did not see any reason to take myself out of that state until you were presented with a challenge you could not meet.”

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“Could not meet?” Lissa said, indignant despite herself. “I could have handled those men.” “Do you remember what I told you at the inn where we first met? Of course you could have handled them. Those poor souls had needs that would not have been fulfilled by your reason. You could not have denied them with words. There was only one path your encounter could have taken and I interceded on their behalf, not yours. There was no need to spill the blood of a few panicked, misguided countrymen tonight. You have done well.” Lissa felt herself swell with pride, although she tried not to show it. “I’m glad you are back. I don’t want to be in charge anymore.” “I will not be much help to you yet. It will take time for me to heal and we are still far from the Castle Merlick. Whatever is done, must be done on your actions.” “At least you can tell me what to do,” Lissa said. Then after a moment’s thought she said, “So, what are we going to do?” “The situation is more dire than I imagined,” La Forge said. “Lissa it is time for you to seek your own counsel. This moment will decide the path your life is to take. I go to the Castle Merlick. I take the heir with me. Bogat may have been right. Such a course might be folly. I’m not sure what the future holds for King Abnell or our people. You have to make the decision yourself. I hope you choose to come with us. But you have done well beyond what I paid you to do. What you chose to do now must be of your own free will.” Finally, the warrior had given her a choice. And as she contemplated it, it did not seem like much of a choice at all. Lissa thought back to the uncertainty of her previous

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life, lurking in dark inns and waiting for the right target to wander through. Living a solitary existence of feast or famine based on her own talents and nerve. Given the war and the unsettlement of so many people, the countryside would be rich with fat targets for her. But even considering such things made her feel lonely and lost. “The inn?” Lissa asked. “The Rondian frontier? That way of life for everyone? It has changed, hasn’t it?” “We are surrounded by those who would do us harm. This war covers all fronts of the Rondian kingdom. There is no escaping it for the time being. Like all wars, it will end. I know not what will be the outcome, but life will go on, in some form or fashion.” La Forge paused, then said, “There is a rare gift within you. If you leave now, that gift may never be realized. Of course, I could also be leading you to your death, so the decision must be your own.” “What about what you told me of my future?” Lissa asked, jerking her head toward Phillip. “Does that vision still stand? Do I still have a role to play in his life?” “I believe you do now more than ever.” La Forge’s cool blue eyes seemed to bore into her. “Why don’t you answer your own question? Look at the heir. Can you feel him? Can you sense his presence?” Lissa was confused by the question. She turned to the heir, who stood nearby in the darkness. She tried to pick him out of the shadows, to see him clearly. “I’m not sure I understand. I feel nothing. Except fatigue. Extreme fatigue and great confusion.” “Ah, are these feelings your own, or do they belong to another?” “Are you telling me that I feel his fatigue? His confusion?”

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“I am asking you what you feel.” Lissa stared into the darkness until Phillip's outline became obvious to her. She stared with an intensity that would have been rude in normal circumstances. Phillip did not squirm, just stared back with his usual mute, expressionless face. Her eyes lost focus for a second, and when she found Phillip again it was like she was looking into his spirit. Lissa felt a chill. Suddenly, something was different. Phillip felt it too, he grunted in the darkness. A blue mist seemed to be drifting from Phillip's body. His eyes were larger, and sadder than they normally were. More importantly, she saw life in his eyes, and comprehension. And his lips, his lips that never displayed emotion or uttered more than a grunt, were turned up in the slightest display of amusement. Lissa was stunned. For that instant, the heir was beautiful in her eyes. Yet even as she saw this vision, her head began to throb. Her mouth went dry and her stomach churned. The ground spun and Lissa fell away from the vision’s embrace, calling out as she shut her eyes to ward off the pain. “The sickness is normal at first,” La Forge said. “What was that?” Lissa panted. “What did I just see?” “For the first time, you truly saw Abnell's heir.” La Forge said, putting a hand on her shoulder to steady her. “My visions usually turn out as I see them,” La Forge continued. “Although, sometimes the outcome is hard to imagine coming.” “Then there is no decision for me to make,” Lissa told La Forge, already hungering for more, no matter how sick it made her feel. “I will continue to the city on

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the River Spoon. No matter the dangers we face. As long as I am able, as long as I am alive, I will stay with you.”

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For two days they traveled south and east, seeing only the occasional group of stragglers and refugees, which they carefully avoided on each occasion. La Forge gained back his strength quickly. Before long, he was guiding his own horse and leading their little procession through the forests, stopping to climb down and inspect the ground when they encountered other tracks. Phillip was the same as always, never smiling or responding to anything said to him, never tiring and never seeming to sleep. Lissa noticed that he did not stray too far from her side now. She couldn't be sure if that was due to what had happened between them, or because she was feeding him. He had grown fond of the dried meat that was in shorter and shorter supply, and Lissa often passed her share of the leathery meat on to the heir. On the second night, both La Forge and Lissa were awakened by a sound from the darkness. It wasn’t much more than a snapped branch, but the two of them survived by waking at such disturbances. They were resting within five paces of one another. La Forge looked into the night while Lissa turned to where Phillip had been standing. He was gone. La Forge’s head moved as he tracked something she could not see. La Forge smiled, then he put his head back down and closed his eyes.

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“What is it?” Lissa whispered. “Is it Phillip?” “It is. He has my sword. Judging from the way he is swinging it around out there I may never get it back.” “He’s practicing?” La Forge nodded, but did not open his eyes. “I think his mind is growing, or opening up to the world around him, if you will. He is learning from what he sees. And hopefully, one day, from what he hears.” Lissa let the implications of that sink in for a moment. “Why doesn’t he need sleep?” “I do not know. He aged very quickly, but he seems to be aging normally now. At least, that is how it appears to me. All has not been revealed to us yet. Time will tell.” Lissa bit her lip, then said, “What about Carre Routh? The fall from the cliff? He should be dead.” Now La Forge’s eyes opened, although he still did not raise his head. “It is something I have never seen.” There was a thrashing in the trees, like perhaps the heir had gotten the sword caught in some branches overhead. “Morgan, is he human? Is Phillip of this world?” “Well, right now his arm is bleeding from where he stuck himself with my sword.” Lissa almost laughed. Then she said, “When I was fighting the Septenrule, I tried to draw your sword.” “I know. You are lucky to be alive.”

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“What happened? Why did your sword hurt me?” “It did exactly what it was supposed to do.” La Forge’s head turned toward the figure in the darkness as he looked toward Phillip. “A better question might be why isn’t it killing him?”

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CHAPTER 24

The rotting timbers provided little comfort to the party that stood underneath the decrepit wooden bridge. It had happened so quickly. One second, they were trekking through the countryside, the next, they were hiding under the bridge. They had been traveling along a road that followed the course of a shallow stream filled with cold, clear water. The stream, almost empty now, must have grown quite turbulent with the spring runoff from the mountains. Over the ages, that runoff cut a ravine through the soft turf of the forest. As they approached a wooden bridge across the water, La Forge cocked his head to one side and gestured for the others to be still. He threw his leg over his saddle and jumped to the ground. He dropped to his knees, placing an ear near the dirt, then he stared wildly down the road behind them. “We are still hunted,” La Forge whispered. “It is close.” The warrior beckoned them across the bridge. On the far side, he led them down the steep banks into the ravine, then pulled the horses under the bridge. There was room for the horses to stand up straight and still not touch the wood. La Forge spoke quietly to the animals, then gestured for silence.

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Lissa watched Phillip. He was standing in ankle deep water so not to be close to the horses. His eyes were cast upward at the bridge. Phillip understood at least some of what La Forge had said or the intention of his words. Her excitement at such visible progress in the heir was cut short by a strange noise. Lissa tried to describe the noise to herself. Almost a galloping of many horses right together, like the beasts were moving at an impossible pace. No sooner had she heard it then the sound seemed to be right on top of them. The noise crossed the bridge at great speed, only touching the wood of the bridge a few times. Then it was gone. “What was that thing?” Lissa asked. “There will be more,” La Forge whispered. A few moments of silence passed. Then they heard it again. This time the sound of galloping horses was more conventional. Once Lissa heard the pounding of the hooves it seemed like forever before the racing horses neared the bridge. The animals thundered across the wood surface and dirt dropped down through the cracks like a sudden rainfall. The horses overhead neighed as they were drawn up on the other side of the bridge. Both Lissa and La Forge clamped their hands over the mouths of their own horses to make sure they did not return the gesture. Strange voices barked out commands in a harsh language she had never heard. Lissa started to draw her sword. La Forge stopped her, putting his hand firmly on her arm. When she looked at him he shook his head. La Forge stepped to the side far enough to see over the lip of the ravine and into the trees. Then he gestured for her to join him. Big men on great, shaggy horses were clearing a spot in the trees.

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“They are making camp,” La Forge whispered. “What was the first thing that went over the bridge?” Lissa asked. The warrior shrugged, then jerked his head at the campsite. “Those are Kentoems. Sometimes used as trackers for the Kingdom of Lindou. We have something, or should I say someone, they want.” “There are fifteen, perhaps twenty of them?” “Too many to attack. But in the light of morning they will soon be able to see that we have not traveled that way. Once it turns fully dark we will have to walk out up the stream. At daybreak they will be on our trail. It will be a race for Merlick from here on.” Lissa processed what the warrior had said. She looked up the stream, then measured the distance to the campsite. She turned to La Forge. “At darkness you will start walking the horses with Phillip. I will stay behind.” “What for?” “The horses will make noise in the water. The going will be slow for the two of you. It won’t for me. The heir is eating more than a horse and we lack provisions for a race. While you are easing upstream, I will visit their camp. It has been a while and I am eager to ply my trade.” La Forge smiled at her and in the gesture she began to see the strength of old return. “You are sure?” he said. “For the first time with you I will be doing something I understand,” Lissa replied. “I will be careful. They will not know I was there until long after I am gone.”

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To her surprise, La Forge offered no resistance. Just before darkness a wagon creaked over the bridge and joined the Kentoems. The men lit a big campfire. A cask was set on the end of the wagon’s bed. The men crowded around it, drawing drinks, before going to sit by the fire. The enemy horses were between the bridge and the camp, and posed something of a problem. Other than that, she saw no sentry or guard being posted. These were men on the hunt, they did not expect to be hunted themselves. La Forge took her hand before he led the horses away. “You have a part to play in the future of the Rondian people.” He cast a quick glance at the heir. “I am even more sure of that now. We need the provisions, but if it is a close thing, then you get out of there.” “Are you worried for the sake of the Rondian people, or for me?” “Artimus Abnell always comes first. That is the way I am built and it is something you will come to understand. But yes, I am worried for you as well. Be careful.” Lissa had not known her father, nor had a strong man ever held a place of significance in her life. Suddenly, she felt like she had both. La Forge led the horses out from under the bridge without another word. Lissa listened as La Forge and Phillip eased up the stream. She heard no sound, but several of the horses picketed outside the camp took notice, standing up from grazing, their ears at attention. Luckily, the Kentoems were too busy drinking to recognize what their horses were telling them. Lissa waited until her counterparts were well down the stream before emerging from under the bridge. She climbed the short ravine, her knees digging into the soft turf,

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and followed the waterway upstream to give her some distance from the horses. Then she ducked from tree to tree, moving like a wraith as she closed on the campsite. She used the wagon for cover. Their voices were clear to her, even if their words were not. Guttural, angry noises slurred from their mouths, perhaps the complaints common to all men under a banner of war. Or perhaps something more sinister, like what they would do to anyone foolish enough to steal from their camp. Before her doubts could entrench themselves, Lissa slipped forward and soon found herself lying in the knee deep grass under their wagon. It was easy enough. A steady stream of men continued to visit the cask right over her head, but their minds were on something else and she was able to lift several small bags of provisions in between their visits. Lissa even surveyed the contents of the bags, consolidating the strange foods into one pack and replacing the lighter bags back in the wagon. She believed the best thieves left no sign of their presence. Lissa was preparing to ease away when she heard that same strange galloping sound she’d heard from under the bridge. Her muscles tightened to run, she surveyed her course back to the stream’s ravine, but was there time? The drunken soldiers took longer, then they heard it, too. The noise seemed to sober them. They gathered close to the fire, staring uneasily into the darkness. The horses were also troubled, neighing restlessly and pulling on their pickets like an unseen storm brewed on the horizon. Then, with no warning, Lissa was horrified to see a Septenrule walk into the firelight. At least that was what she thought it was. It was not exactly the same as the one that had sprayed its venom on La Forge. In fact, this one seemed even bigger than the one

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that had attacked them in the mountains near Carre-Routh. While the one she had faced had only four legs, she counted six on this one. The men around the fire seemed no happier to see it than she was. They cast furtive glances at the beast then stared into the flames, their spirit sapped as quickly as water doused a fire. The creature’s body dropped to the ground, its many legs curling into the air. It made a shrieking sound and started to shake. The men stepped away as the creature seemed to collapse in on itself, the massive form sinking into the grass. And getting smaller. And smaller. Finally the hairy back was replaced with a brown robe. The black, angled jaw replaced with that of a white headed human. The figure stayed prone on the ground for a few minutes, then he stood. It was a man in brown. An old man. Lissa knew then that one question had been answered. She understood the brown wizards that others had spoken of. But Lissa did not have time to contemplate the revelation. The brown wizard was looking in her direction. Her heart caught. She did not think he was studying the cask on the back of the wagon. Her muscles tensed once again and she prepared to flee. She wasn’t sure how, but she had no doubt the wizard in brown was aware of her. And she was about to be running for her life.

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CHAPTER 25

The wizard began walking toward her. Instinct told Lissa that hesitation would mean death. Grabbing the bag of provisions, she launched herself out from under the wagon. Behind her cries of alarm rose into the sky. She drew her dagger as she ran. Reaching the horses, she crouched and slashed the picket line as she sprinted down it. The horses, already spooked by the Septenrule’s arrival, needed no further encouragement. They wheeled away from her and stampeded into the darkness. Lissa ran among them and waited for the right chance, then grabbed the mane of a smaller horse. The barreling momentum of the small animal almost jerked her arm off, but she clung to the hair and threw her leg over the horse’s back. Looking over her shoulder she could see men racing through the trees in an attempt to cut her off. There was no sign of the brown wizard. The horses were following the stream and running in the right direction, so Lissa saw no need to direct the one she rode except to kick it in the ribs a few times to make sure it did not let up. The horses were flying. She cleared the men attempting to cut her off her escape route. The herd thundered through the night. When the lead horse slowed,

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Lissa urged the one she rode through the pack and continued running, taking the lead. The other horses followed. In a clearing ahead she saw La Forge step out of the ravine. He had their horses with him. She did not see Phillip, but that did not mean he wasn’t nearby. “I picked up a few mounts,” Lissa yelled as the herd surged past the warrior. La Forge nodded and jumped on his own horse. The darkness swallowed him up but she knew he would be back there, coming after her. Lissa let the horses run until they could run no more. They stopped in a small field, a tail of dust catching up to them as the horses stamped and neighed and tried to calm down, spreading out to graze on the rich grass at their feet. La Forge came galloping up a few minutes later. Lissa hurriedly told him about the brown wizard and the transformation from a Septenrule. He listened without comment, then nodded grimly at the news. “You have provided answers even more important than the provisions. There is much to consider here, but no time. Remember how fast that creature moved when we were under the bridge. That was the Septenrule. That means we have minutes, maybe less, before it catches up to us again.” La Forge jumped down from his horse and walked among the stolen horses. He talked softly to them and after a minute the horses turned and ran from the clearing. La Forge remounted. “We will follow the herd’s tracks then take a different course at a place that suits us.”

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Phillip ran into the clearing. He was breathing hard. Other than that, he seemed fine. La Forge nodded at him, then turned his horse and followed the herd. Lissa, who had gotten on her own horse, lashed the bag of stolen provisions behind her saddle as she followed La Forge. Then she turned and watched, making sure Phillip ran after them. She never saw the stolen horses again, only ate their dust for a few miles, then watched as La Forge veered off the trail and followed him. They pulled up on a small incline and watched their back trail. After a few minutes Phillip ran past, missing the spot where they had turned off. Lissa started to go after him, but La Forge stopped her. Phillip reappeared where they had turned off. He inspected the trail, then looked in the direction they had come. He did all of this by moonlight. “What is he doing?” Lissa asked when Phillip dropped to his knees and worked the ground. “He must have seen our path. He knows where we are.” “He’s covering our tracks. I think he saw you do it.” “He’s learning,” Lissa said. “He’s tracking us by the light of the moon,” La Forge said as he turned his horse. “He’s covering our trail. I’d say he’s learning pretty fast.”

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They dismounted and walked their horses. Phillip caught up to them as the sun’s rays lit the tops of the trees. Roads were off limits. They were moving cross-country now, not even sticking to game trails. The going was slow and for that Lissa was thankful, her body ached and called for sleep, which she knew it was not going to get. By midmorning, they were in the saddle again and the forests were beginning to slope downward. Boulders appeared, jutting out of the ground at random intervals. On a hillside, Lissa saw the ruins of an old castle, what would have been a magnificent structure in its time. She was too tired to ask La Forge the history behind it. Suddenly, through the trees, she could see sunlight reflecting off of a large body of water. They walked the horses right to the edge, where the animals gratefully dunked their mouths into the clear water. “This is the River Spoon,” La Forge announced. “The creature that follows us forces a state of constant alert. We will follow the river. At best it will take us three days to reach Merlick from here. I fear when we get close, the enemy will occupy both sides of the river and perhaps the river itself. The people of Lorre on the far shore and the soldiers of Lindou on this side. Bogat told us the Knights of Porduem are in the field and that leaves the Hordes of Glaserathe, and I would not expect them to miss a fight. All of our former allies will be converging on Merlick.” “What will we do if we get there and the siege is already underway?” Lissa asked. “Simple,” La Forge said. “We will fight our way inside.”

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CHAPTER 26

A few hours later they were walking their horses across a field when La Forge suddenly turned. “The blade,” La Forge yelled to Phillip as the hideous scream of a Septenrule cut across the air. Lissa jerked her head left and right, trying to locate the creature. It was ahead of them, in a clump of trees. Phillip still wore the warrior's ruby hilted blade. He took the sword from his belt and threw it to La Forge, who caught it by the handle, jumped on his horse, and spurred it through the grass. Lissa wasn't sure what to be more surprised about, the current crisis, or the fact that the heir had quickly understood Morgan's demand. She climbed into the saddle and urged her horse after the warrior as La Forge raced up a small incline. The hill prevented her from seeing what La Forge saw. The warrior jumped from his horse before it had stopped moving. Landing upright, La Forge stepped slowly forward. He held his sword high above his head, yelled to the sky, then drove the blade into the ground. The ground seemed to shudder and buck.

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Lissa’s horse reared and she was thrown from her mount. She landed on her side and scrambled to her feet. Lissa continued on, reaching the crest of the incline in time to see the same Septenrule that had been tracking them through the mountains attack a young man who stood in the stream. The young man was about her age, slightly built, with a sharp face. As he parried the attack of the beast, the young man moved with a speed she did not think was possible. At one point, Lissa could not see his blade, only a grayish blue blur as it flashed through the air. She was so stunned by the speed at which this man moved that she did not join the fight. La Forge did. As the slight man swung his blade with lighting speed, La Forge approached the creature from behind and drove his sword into the animal’s body. The Septenrule howled and turned so it could face both of them. The two men moved on it in unison. The creature fought them for a moment, then it retreated, leaving so fast it cast up a wall of water in its wake. Lissa, from her spot on the incline, watched the creature break from the distant trees and move with impossible speed across the fields, disappearing to nothing more than a black dot in mere seconds. The two men stood near each other now. La Forge towered over the other man, who wore a dark blue uniform of some type. There was another soldier in a similar uniform down in the water. One glance showed that he was beyond help. As were their two horses, one completely submerged in the stream, the other two lying a few feet away on the bank.

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Where La Forge was a big man, broad of chest and shoulders but also light on his feet, this man was slight, with sandy, dirty hair. La Forge dipped his blade into the water to clean it. “You are without a mount,” La Forge said without looking up from what he was doing. “The creature killed your horses.” “I have horses coming up behind me,” the soldier said. “Thank you for your help.” Now La Forge looked up, turning his icy blue eyes on the younger man. “The creature’s ambush was for us, not for you. I am sorry that you were burdened by it. It has cost you men and horses. Your loss has not been light.” The slight man nodded. “We have already lost many on our campaign on the far shores. I was scouting this side of the river to see if the path downstream was clear. I am Jonah the Bastard. I ride for General Vendam Fulcer of Lorre. You are with the men of Lindou?” A smile creased La Forge’s weathered face. “Your skills do Lorre and your general great service, young Jonah. I know Vendam. Tell him of this encounter and tell him an old friend sends his greetings. Then also tell him that old friend advises that the valiant army of Lorre should reverse course and return to their mountain home.” “I do not think General Fulcer will be in a position to heed your advice. He is acting on the word of his queen.” “She rides with the invading army?” “And her daughter as well. You will not give me your name?” “It is not necessary,” La Forge said. “Vendam and his queen will know it.”

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Phillip was standing beside her and he grunted as La Forge walked back up the hill toward them. “Mount up,” La Forge said quietly, concern clear on his face. “We must make haste.” “What about him?” Lissa asked, tipping her head to the lone young man in the trees. “Don't worry about the boy of Lorre.” La Forge was brusque; the first time she could recall him being so. “His name is Jonah. He is part of an invading army. He has others coming up behind him. Many more.” Lissa's horse was still jumpy, and fought her once she was in the saddle. She worked to calm the mount, then fell in behind La Forge as they circled the small forest. “An heir who won’t die and doesn’t tire,” Lissa yelled to La Forge as they rode at a full gallop. “A warrior who seems to bend the spirits to his will. And now that Lorre swordsman whose blade moved so fast my eyes could not follow it. I’m not sure who to be more afraid of.” “Did you feel anything around that boy?” La Forge yelled suddenly. “What?” “Like with Phillip when he sat next to the tree. When you saw in to Phillip for the first time. Did you feel anything at all like that around that Lorre soldier?” “No,” Lissa said. “I felt nothing.” La Forge looked over his shoulder at Phillip, who ran doggedly behind them. Then he turned to the distant young warrior on the hill. La Forge pointed at the figure in

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the trees. “You asked what you should fear. Be afraid of what you never expected. For now, be most afraid of the boy named Jonah.”

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CHAPTER 27

They stayed in the saddle for an entire day. Lissa dozed on her horse. It was not a restful sleep, as she rocked back and forth, finding solace in her dreams for only an instant before the horse would miss a step or a low branch would slap her face. The horses were forced to walk. In the dark rain they could barely pick their way through the dense trees. She was as drenched as she could be. Water dripped into her eyes, and down her back, and into her boots. But exhaustion overcame her discomfort. At one point Lissa truly slept and did not wake until she fell, landing in the mud and spooking her mount, which galloped into the darkness. La Forge went after the animal. Before she could think to move, two strong hands plucked her out of the mud and stood her upright. The rain streamed down Phillip’s expressionless face. La Forge returned before Lissa had a chance to get uneasy about being alone with the heir. The warrior said nothing as he passed her the reins to her horse and led off again. Even his rock hard face seemed lined with weariness. But there was a difference. La Forge had used the magic in the trees against the beast. She had not completely felt the effects of the spell, it being directed in front of him, but she had sensed its powerful results. Yet the use of the arts did not seem to have taken such a toll on La Forge as

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before. He was as tired as he should be, given what they had been through, but not shaken and drained like he had been before in the use of his spells. Lissa would have asked about it had she not been so exhausted. The thief was even too exhausted to care about the army marching right behind them. Sometimes they could hear the men shouting to each other, and once they heard the galloping horses of outriders. An army, La Forge guessed it was the men of Lindou or Lorre, was arriving at the river at the same time as they were. As Lissa rode forward, she spotted lights below them through the trees. Then they came to an opening and she could see it was firelight, dampened and struggling against the rain. Their horses wound down a steep slope, their riders allowing the mounts to pick the best route through the tree stumps and mud. Then the ground leveled out and Lissa realized they had arrived at the river’s edge and a small defended crossing. The post’s walls were made from recently felled trees, carved in a semicircle with no defense on the river side. The soil surrounding the fort had been wiped clean of vegetation, and ugly stumps dotted the bare ground. La Forge hailed the fort, his voice cutting through the patter of rain. There was yelling within the fortification. Men appeared on the walls, still dressing as they peered into the darkness, searching for the source of the call. “A party of three seeks admission to this Rondian post,” La Forge called out. “In the morning,” a voice called back. “When we can see you.” “You will be dead by morning,” La Forge replied. “You will admit me now.”

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There was a shouted confrontation from behind the walls. The voice yelled back. “Step forward into the light so that we may see you. Then we will make our decision.” La Forge eased his horse forward. Lissa did the same, staying one step behind him as they picked their way through the gnarled ground. She nervously watched the archers on the walls. It would have been a shame to die at the end of such a journey at the hands of the very people they sought to protect. Obviously, the men on the wall were not impressed. “In the morning,” the voice called again. “If you want to come in, you must wait until then.” La Forge urged his horse forward. Men called out for him to stop. The warrior did not do so until he was directly under the wall and their drawn bows. The warrior sat up in his saddle. Lissa could have sworn his girth expanded as he addressed them. “Is there anyone on that barricade who knows me?” La Forge boomed. More hesitation behind the wall, with one meek voice crying out that he did. Another head appeared over the fortification. The voice belonged to the original responder. “There is one inside the walls who says that he knows you.” “What about you? Look at me carefully and think of what that man has told you. Do you know me now?” “I believe I do, sir.” “And do the men of this encampment still hold their allegiance to King Artimus Abnell and the throne of Castle Merlick?” “Indeed we do, sir,” the man said immediately.

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“Then throw open this gate. Trust me, you have no time to do anything else.” They did as the warrior instructed. La Forge gestured for her to wait and disappeared inside. After a few moments he rode back outside the walls and waved for them to join him. Phillip walked behind her as they entered the small keep. In front of her ran the wide waters of the River Spoon. From where they had approached the post she had not been able to see across the river because of the fort's walls. Now she had an unobstructed view and her breath caught. Shimmering off the water in the distance, perched high on the bluffs, was a luminous stone behemoth that could only be the Castle Merlick. Men were gathered around La Forge, who sat on his horse as he issued commands. Phillip watched the proceedings with his usual indifference. Although the men of this hasty encampment would never know it, the heir to the Rondian throne was once again among his people.

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La Forge commanded them to torch the fort, among other things. During a lull in La Forge's stream of orders, Lissa quietly asked him about the inferior appearance of the fortification. She had expected something more permanent, especially considering its proximity to the grandiose Castle Merlick.

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“There is a ferry just to the south with permanent fortifications,” La Forge said, then he cast his eyes at the crooked walls around them. “Aye, this place is shoddy,” he said. “But our enemy will focus on the crossing to the south. I figured coming here gave us our best chance of getting across.” Rafts and boats were sent across the river and Lissa was led onto the first one. They had a problem with Phillip. She beckoned him onto the short pier, but when he saw the small flat-bottomed barge rocking in the water the heir balked. Now that he was so close to the castle, La Forge seemed to have little patience for such things. He walked over and placed his hands on Phillip. The heir fell to the ground. A few men picked him up and heaved him aboard. “Light everything, including the pier,” La Forge told the commander as they set out. “Riders in the trees,” a voice called from the walls. “Get your men across the water,” La Forge urged the officer as the boat slipped into the current. “Their numbers will be too great! Hurry!” The men at the three sets of oars put their backs into it and pulled the small craft forward. On the shore they had just left, just outside the walls of the fortification, men on horseback swirled about, launching arrows at the Rhondian soldiers along the wall and a few toward the craft in the water. The attackers carried the banners of Lindou. “They will not last thirty minutes,” La Forge said under his breath. “They must get out.”

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Although the sounds of the battle carried to them over the river, soon they were out of bowshot and Lissa turned her attention to the city that dominated the opposite shore. Castle Merlick sat at a sudden bend, hanging high above the River Spoon. Gray bluffs that glowed in the moonlight lined that side of the river. They were rowing for a place upstream where the bluffs were smaller. There was nothing small about the Castle Merlick, though. It loomed over a rocky landscape with its high, thick ramparts and a succession of lit spires pointing to the sky. The walls themselves seemed to grow out of the bedrock, the rough rock below brown and crumbling, while the walls looked polished and impenetrable. Guard towers lined the walls, which stood at least ten men high. Colorful banners fluttered in the light breeze. The gate that Lissa could see was approached by a steep switchback road that wound through the rocks to the castle. Even from the river, Lissa could see that the road was choked with carts and horses and people. “Refugees,” La Forge said with a nod at the crowds. “Running in front of the armies that descend on us. The invaders are letting them through. They jam the path, making our preparations for defense more difficult. And they put more mouths within the walls, making the amount of time we can withstand a siege that much shorter.” As they got closer, Lissa could see individual soldiers lining the fortifications, looking down at the crowds that streamed into the castle. Behind them, the shoreline exploded in light as the Rondian soldiers carried out La Forge’s command. The inferior camp was aflame. In front of the flames, heavily laden boats struggled in the currents.

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Lissa and La Forge were rowed ashore at a large wharf. A flat area had been carved out of the bluffs and great storehouses lined the waterfront. The immense doors to the buildings were open and a steady supply of heavily laden carts came from the storehouses, joining the line of people inching up to the castle gate. “So it is true,” a deep voice called from the pier. “Finnigan picked you out with the glasses from the walls. Swore it had to be you. So I came down to find out for myself. From the look of you, and that pretty lass you have in tow, you have a tale to tell.” The man was as big as anything Lissa had ever seen. He had a ruddy face, mostly hidden behind a red beard and wild scarlet hair that was partially restrained by braids of different colors. A huge ax was strapped to his back. And he wore the red boots of the personal troops of the King’s Warrior. La Forge jumped easily off the shaky boat. He took the man’s hand and shook it warmly. “It is good to see you, Yulerick. There will be time for stories later, and yes, there are one or two to tell. How much of the provisions have been moved into the castle?” The man named Yulerick looked over his shoulder at the flurry of activity. “Most of it, sir. We will have them emptied within the hour.” “You will be fighting for this shoreline within the hour,” La Forge said. “There is a hard charging lot right behind us. Men of Lindou. I suspect they had boats being brought up even as we crossed.” “We have fought here before, sir. We can hold this site as long as need be.” “No,” La Forge said. “Load as much as you can and make for the castle. The men of Lindou are not the ones who concern me.”

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La Forge lowered his voice, placing an arm on the shoulder of the bigger man. “There is a slight boy in the army of Fulcer of Lorre. At first sight you will be tempted to underestimate him. Do not! I suspect he crossed farther upstream and bears down the main road even now. He will be here soon and will cut you off from the castle. You must not let that happen. Clear the road. Get everyone within the gates. And if you see this boy from Lorre, tell the men they would do well not to engage him.” Surprise flickered across Yulerick’s face. Lissa suspected it was not an emotion he displayed often. “This will be the last trip then. What about this place? We don’t want to leave supplies for our enemies. Burn the rest of it?” La Forge was looking back across the river for sign of the inevitable crossing from the men of Lindou. “Yes,” he said without taking his eyes off the water. “Burn it all.”

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Three horses were brought forward for them. La Forge and Lissa mounted theirs and the unconscious Phillip was laid across the third. As they left the waterfront and climbed to the main road, several well-armed horsemen rode in front and cleared the provision-laden carts from their path. It was pandemonium on the main road. People jostled and fought, horses reared and no one seemed to be going anywhere fast.

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“Look at the panic in their eyes,” La Forge yelled to Lissa over the chaos. “Makes you wonder what they have seen.” The Rondian horsemen did their best to clear a path, but most of the people were more afraid of what was behind them than a big charger right under the eaves of the castle walls. Lissa could tell that it pained La Forge to see such a sight. Once, he dismounted to help an old woman who was struggling up the hill. He picked her up, swept aside some supplies and placed her in a cart. The cart’s owner, who was directing his skittish horse on foot, had been about to complain when he saw the look on the warrior’s face, then he merely nodded and trudged on. As they climbed higher, taking one switchback after another, La Forge tugged Lissa’s arm and pointed back. She turned in the saddle and gasped. She had not realized how high they had climbed. On the plains behind them, a broad line of lights bore down on the castle. “The army of Lorre,” La Forge yelled. “The smallest one that marches on us. Also the one that is the most feared. But, usually, the most reasonable. Their queen is in the field. One can only hope she will show some restraint. There, across the river, see the lights?” She did, the lights blinking and weaving through the trees. “That is the army of Lindou. Their main force will have to cross to this side of the river before the assault. It will be a massive job but they’ve done it before, generations ago. They were ferry most of their men across before daylight, I suspect.” La Forge turned the other way in the saddle, looking farther downstream, straining to see around the jutting castle walls.

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“The White Knights of Purdoem will approach below the castle and launch their assault from the south.” Then he turned to his right. “And over there, among the trees to the east, will be the hordes of Glaserathe. The most spirited of all, but luckily lacking leadership and discipline.” Lissa felt like her head was on a swivel. The higher they climbed, the more of the advancing armies she could see. The Castle Merlick itself was a masterpiece, a monumental testament to the work of man. Figures were carved in the stone walls, great warriors who had served this city before. As she got closer, the sheer size of the fortress almost defied reason. She had toiled so long to reach this point, and Lissa could barely find time to look at Rondian city. Instead, she focused on the waves of humanity bearing down on them, and she began to wonder how any man-made structure could stand up to such an assault.

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CHAPTER 28

As they approached the castle, the thief in her noted the intricate lines of gold that ran through the immense oak doors. The fighter in her approved of the narrow slits in the arches above the gate, insuring any attacker would face a gauntlet of projectiles before getting through. After their horses’ hooves clattered under the opening in the substantial walls, Lissa saw that despite its name, Merlick was more city than castle. There was so much that could not be seen from the outside. Broad streets ran in three directions from the gate. The keep was straight ahead, and higher still than the city proper. That was the way La Forge led them. Most of the refugees were being steered right and left upon entering the walls, so the crowds thinned out significantly and La Forge urged the horses to a trot as they climbed, seeking the heart of the gleaming city. The military men all turned to look at La Forge. Lissa could see the relief on their faces at the sight of the great warrior. Hearty cries rang out, and others clapped the backs of their fellow soldiers like perhaps the battle was already won. They passed shops, simple two and three story buildings with the businesses on the ground floor and housing above. Under such dark circumstances, the cheerful cries

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from the soldiers brought the attention of the city’s citizens. People hung out of windows and doorways and called to La Forge as he rode onward. The King’s Warrior rode with a straight back and showed no sign of hearing them. They approached another wall and passed through another gate. This wall was much shorter, although it benefited from the constant rise in elevation. The gates lacked the ornamentation of the first. They were gray steel, and wore the scratches and dents of previous battles on their surface. Inside those gates was more of the same; shops and inns lined either side of the road. Lissa’s mouth watered. Never before had she seen such prosperity. She could not have imagined such wealth existed in an entire city, let alone on one avenue of the castle. Furthermore, they passed additional columns of soldiers streaming down from the keep and marching toward the outer walls. These men also took up a cheer at the sight of La Forge. They came to a third wall, thick still, but low to the ground with several loose rocks standing haphazardly at its base. This gate, cast in iron, was emblazoned with Abnell’s seal. Then they entered a huge courtyard, as big as some cities Lissa had seen. Birds chased each other through the air. The whole courtyard was carpeted with gray, square bricks that were outlined with tufts of rich green grass. Perhaps it was more like a garden, Lissa thought, since a stand of colorful trees stood at one end of the enormous area. The castle proper, with its white spires, stood on the far side of the courtyard. More buildings surrounded it. A balcony, obviously the place Abnell addressed his

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people, hung over the gigantic courtyard. This was the original Merlick, with its crumbling walls and its statuesque keep. Through the generations, the city had grown down the hill. But this place was the heart of it. The pandemonium and constant action was absent here. It was quiet enough to hear the birds sing. The air was light and held none of the fear of the coming conflict. La Forge took a deep breath, seeming to take it all in for one moment. Strength had returned to his face, making him appear once again as impenetrable as the stone edifices that surrounded them. The horses galloped across the empty expanse. Ivy covered walls lined either side, with obscured firing positions, although no men that she could see lined the ramparts. Lissa had been frightened by the sight of the armies marching against the Rondian capital, and now she was no less impressed with the castle itself. If there was a place that could give the impression of cool impregnability in the face of such might, this was it. They rode under the balcony and through another gate into a small courtyard within the old castle. A sentry challenged them. La Forge waved him off and dismounted. He ordered the sentry to bring the unconscious Phillip and led Lissa to a set of stairs. More guards saluted at the first landing. On the second landing, La Forge led her through a series of anterooms and into a waiting room. A stooped, gray haired man ambled forward. He had kind eyes and wore a sky blue robe that came to his ankles. Leather sandals covered his feet. “Your mission was successful?” the man asked without preamble. “Of a sort,” La Forge reported, then he glanced around. “King Abnell is not here. Where is he?”

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“The power of the joining,” the man said dryly to Lissa. “Explain your answer to my question and I’ll answer yours. What of the heir?” “The heir is here. He is alive.” “Thank the Gods,” the man said. La Forge shook his head, as if just remembering her. “Count Farnella, may I present Lissa Arethaddle, believed to be of the Minstre-Veeha Order.” The man’s face showed shock. “You are sure of this, La Forge?” he asked quickly. “In the past there---.” “I have made my mistakes in the recent past,” La Forge said. “This is not one of them. She is of the blood.” “You are absolutely certain which order she belongs to? A mistake of those proportions would---.” “I am,” La Forge cut in. “She has done King Abnell a great service in the return of the heir. I would not be here without her.” Count Farnella recovered quickly. He bowed low and kissed Lissa’s hand. “There should be a feast in your honor,” Farnella said. “Obviously, that will not be so. Please forgive us for not engaging in the usual pleasantries. I can only hope there will be opportunity for them later.” Farnella turned to La Forge, his demeanor shifting quickly like that of an old hand in the affairs of the royal court. “As you well know, all four remaining members of the Council are in the field. Our outer defenses have collapsed and all of them bear down on Merlick proper. Our defenses here are in place. We have followed your instructions precisely. Yulerick deserves great credit for that.”

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“I saw him at the docks. There is a development regarding the heir. I must speak to King Abnell immediately. Why is he not here?” Count Farnella cast his eyes downward. “There is more. An attempt was made on his Majesty’s life. Last night. A creature landed within the courtyard and infiltrated the King’s personal chambers. Many were killed. This monster was like nothing we have ever seen. We could not stop it. The King lived only because the creature could not find him. I fear we are no longer the only ones who employ great arts in this realm.” “We, too, have witnessed actions that greatly trouble my heart,” La Forge said. “I need your help promptly. I am weary, and not able to follow my feelings within a city of so many. I must find the King. I have counsel to provide.” “You are tired indeed, if you can not distinguish him in your mind.” Count Farnella’s eyes narrowed. “It has been kept very quiet, but King Abnell slept the night near the east wall.” La Forge grimaced. “Something drew me that direction as we entered the city,” he said. “Only I assumed it was my return to Merlick that I felt. He is overseeing the defense?” “Oh, you know Artimus Abnell. He has called a meeting of the Council of Five, even as they advance on him. He is trying to stop the bloodshed.” La Forge seemed alarmed. “A meeting? Tell me he is not going outside the walls without me.” “He knew you were coming back. He told me you were getting closer, but he did not think you would arrive in time. The Council meeting will begin shortly. Outside the east wall. We have surmised that all of the participants are present, except Lorre.”

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“Queen Benetin would have been our best hope for reason,” La Forge said. Farnella nodded. “Yes, but King Abnell can afford to wait no longer. Any more bloodshed against our people and Abnell’s own subjects may reject the peace.” La Forge turned to her. “Lissa, two men outside the room will take you to Phillip. He will awake at your touch. Instruct the men to bring you both to me at the observation post on the east wall.” He held her arms. “There is no time to explain. Be careful how it is done.” Lissa nodded, alarmed at the distress she saw on La Forge's face. She turned and walked from the room. As she cleared the door she heard La Forge say to the other man, “I am going to the east wall. Before he attempts to broker a peace, there are things Abnell must know.”

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Phillip had been laid across a wide bed in a comfortably appointed room. Physically drained as she was, Lissa was tempted to climb onto the other side of the bed and sleep for days. Lissa put her hand on Phillip’s leg. As La Forge had said, his eyes popped open and he was instantly awake. The sight of the big, opulent room caused Phillip alarm. He shot to his feet.

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“It is all right,” Lissa said softly. “We are in the Castle Merlick. You are home now.” She doubted that he understood any of her words. It was her soothing tone, more than anything, that calmed him. “We are going to see your father,” Lissa continued. “There isn’t much time.” Lissa had taken his hands as she tried to calm him. The heir yawned and stretched, yet another very human thing for the impassive successor to do, then he stared at Lissa. She walked from the room and he followed. Two men waited for them outside the door. When they saw Phillip both men gasped. Lissa was thrown by the response until she realized they had not seen his face when he came in. One of the men dropped to a knee and offered his hand. The other, as soon as he saw his counterpart, hastily did the same, although the confusion was evident. Of course Phillip’s face remained a sea with no waves. He did not acknowledge the action taken by the men. He did not take their hands. He simply stared at Lissa and waited for her to move on. It was then that the thief fully understood La Forge's instructions. “I need your silence,” she said to the men, beckoning them to their feet. “No one must know of this. The King’s Warrior is depending on it.” The men looked from her to the heir, as if waiting for some word from him. “He will not address you,” Lissa said. “This is a time of war and there is no time for questions. You will answer to me, or, if not, you will answer to La Forge.” The men exchanged a glance. Then both of them nodded.

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“My Lady,” one of the men whispered, without taking his eyes off the heir. “There was a child who was taken. Our king has no sisters or brothers, no other children, but this man is King Abnell. He lacks the fire in his eyes, but it is he all the same. Take thirty years off our leader and I stand before him now.” “To your feet and know that all will be explained in time,” Lissa said. “For now, I need your silence.” She paused, then added, “And I need a cloak with a hood.”

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Of course she could not be sure. Still, she suspected that La Forge had placed them with these two men because he trusted them explicitly. Both had young, fresh faces and wore battle garb that appeared to have had little use. It was not like she had a choice. She simply wanted to get the heir to La Forge’s side and let him handle it from there. The cloak was black. Phillip did not like the hood and took it off. She replaced it, and he took it off again. Then she put on her own hood to show it was necessary, and Phillip finally acquiesced. They took a different route out of the keep, a procession of hooded riders and one on foot. Once out of the keep they turned to their left and headed east. Where it had been uphill on their way in, this way was mostly flat. Lissa was surprised to see the same amount of affluence and prosperity on this side of the city. This city of wealth had won her over. She could have made a career out of the capital, and the thief in her could not help but be amazed. Everywhere she looked she saw gold, shining brass or clear, smooth marble. They rode until the outer walls loomed above them, walls even larger than the ones on the north side. This side of the city also seemed more crowded with soldiers.

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They were forced to dismount and finish the trip on foot, winding their way through huge contraptions, with wheels and ropes and long logs, something Lissa had never seen before. These contraptions were being positioned right inside the walls and she knew they were weapons to be employed in the defense. They took a set of wooden steps up to a short tower. Inside, the room was warm and smelled of too many dirty men, most of them sitting on the floor and eating with their hands. These soldiers barely looked up as the procession marched through. Then they took another set of stairs onto a parapet that ran along the top of the outer walls. Now she could see the field beyond the walls. Lissa drew in her breath and held it. The enemy took up the entire vista. It was a different view than before, she felt closer to the approaching armies. The walls were tall, but the natural elements did not aid them as much as they did on the north side. Rocks littered the ground at the bottom of the walls, and there was a fair slope away from the city, but nothing like the broken land that had required steep switchbacks from the north. Enemy campfires could be seen outside the walls for as far as the eye could see. Thousands of men milled about them and the banter from those firesides combined to produce a small roar up on the walls. There were also, a good distance away, massive towers being assembled, and when completed they would be loaded with enemy soldiers and rolled into place against the wall where she stood. In a quick tally, Lissa counted ten of those towers and she suspected there were more. A group of men huddled around La Forge. The King's Warrior had rounded up fresh clothes, his travel-stained garb replaced by a simple black tunic and slim brown

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pants tucked into a pair of dark red boots, like those used by his men. He wore a black cloak, similar to the one covering the heir. She walked toward them and La Forge disengaged himself from the group and met her alone on the parapet. The heir stood a few steps behind her, peering over the wall. “Anyone get a good look at Phillip?” La Forge asked. She nodded. “The two men you had with me. They helped me find the cloak.” “They are solid,” La Forge said. “There are considerations with the court that would make Phillip’s plight an issue if it were to come to light. We can only hope those men will hold their tongues long enough for me to get to Abnell.” La Forge pointed over the wall to a large blue tent at the edge of the tree line. Saddled horses were gathered around the tent as well as small groups of retainers. “The representatives from the Council are meeting as we speak. Too late to get word to King Abnell about what you and I have learned, and what has become of his son.” La Forge took hold of the wall with both of his hands, a rare display of his feelings. “I fear for his safety. I would suspect a trap, but our allies get along among each other on very wary terms. There would be no consensus among them regarding such deceitfulness.” “What if only one of them thinks a trap is a good idea?” “That is a fear of mine as well,” La Forge breathed. “But at this point we are too late to do anything about it. Many of their men have been held back from the meeting site. One of the conditions was that the eastern gate not be opened again, nor anyone leave the castle once the meeting began. The gate still stands open. Refugees are still

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streaming into the city. They are going to start the meeting anyway, but all bets would be off if we sent a force out. So there is no way for me to get down there undetected. We will have to wait until after the meeting to speak to the King.” “Minstre-Veeha,” Lissa said suddenly. “You told Count Farnella I was a member of that order and he seemed to be distressed. All along you have implied it would be a good thing. His reaction said otherwise.” La Forge did not stop watching the blue tent outside the walls. “He was concerned that I might be wrong and you were something that your are not. After all these years, the Great Purging still holds its sway over the minds of even the most intelligent men. All I can tell you for now is that Minstre-Veeha is the same order to which I belong. There is another, similar order, and it was that order that gave him pause. He wanted my assurance that I was certain and had placed you in the correct order. That was all.” “Why would it be bad if I was in the other order?” “I'm sorry. The rest will have to wait until you are ready to hear it, and I have a clear enough head to explain it properly.” Lissa frowned, not surprised at his response, but disappointed by it. “What’s going to happen here? What does Abnell hope to gain with this meeting?” La Forge shrugged. “King Abnell can be very convincing. And the Queen of Lorre, if she has arrived, can be counted on for reason. That means he just needs to sway one of the others to slow down the assault and allow time for saner minds to prevail. I do not know what King Abnell plans, he rarely shares his thoughts with others, but I can feel him now, this close, and his heart tells me he is in search of peace.” “You said that earlier, about feeling him. How?”

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“The joining, Lissa,” La Forge said, still staring at the tent. “One soul to another. We are tied in life, and in death. The power I wield originates in him. Not totally unlike what you did when you looked into Phillip. Perhaps you will learn of it if you wish to further your place in the order.” Lissa was about to ask another question when a man came scrambling out from under the tent where the meeting was being held. A murmur went up along the wall as the rest of the Rondian soldiers saw it. Then another man scrambled out from under the tent, looking over his shoulder at something they could not see. “The King is distressed,” La Forge said as he leaned over, grasping the edge of the wall like he was trying to see under the eaves of the tent. Suddenly everyone along the Rondian wall was looking at the blue tent. A growl echoed across the field. Something was happening under the fabric. Something violent. Then the tent itself rose up into the sky. A huge brown hand ripped the tent away, revealing a creature half as tall as the wall on which they stood. The men at the creature’s feet were sprinting every direction. The beast swooped down with one massive paw and tossed three or four men through the air and into the tops of the trees. The creature threw his head back and roared, the force of it seeming to shake the fortification beneath Lissa's feet. “What is that thing?” Lissa screamed. “Treachery!” La Forge shouted over his shoulder. “A line,” he yelled down the wall.

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Lissa saw that the men were already in motion before La Forge’s call. The men ran toward them, one of them brandishing a yellow strand of rope. La Forge took the line in one hand and used his other hand to vault himself over the wall. Lissa leaned forward and watched La Forge glide gracefully to the ground. Three long bounds and he was down. As soon as he touched the rocks, Lissa pushed another warrior aside and took the line. Grasping the rope with both hands she jumped into nothingness, falling until the line jerked taunt and slammed her back into the wall. It was all she could do to maintain her grip. Once she regained her facilities, she loosened her hold and started sliding down the rope, her palms burning like they were alight with fire. The beast roared again behind her, but Lissa concentrated on getting to the ground. She was halfway down when Lissa heard a grunt. Above her, looking over the edge of the wall, she spotted the expressionless face of the heir. Phillip's lifeless eyes stared down at her and for the first time she saw what passed for expression on his face. His look was one of anguish and hopelessness. Somehow Lissa knew what was about to happen. Before she could call out to stop him, Phillip propelled himself over the wall. The heir had no rope. Lissa screamed as Phillip dropped past her. Grasping the rope with one bloody hand, she reached out for him as he tumbled downward. She felt the faintest touch of his cloak as it brushed past her outstretched fingers. Lissa covered her eyes with one arm, not bearing to look. The Rondian heir’s body made a dull thump as it slammed into the rocks below.

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Lissa's hands felt like they were on fire as she slid down the rope. She dropped the last ten feet, ignoring the risk. Stones turned under her feet as she hit the ground and she fell to her side. A man with a sword came at her, swinging the blade madly. Lissa did not have time to draw her own weapon. Instead, she ducked the blow, which careened off the castle wall, grabbed the man’s arm, and drove her elbow into his face. That was enough. Her would-be assailant staggered off. Both of her palms were bloody as she drew her sword. Chaos reigned where the tent had been. The colossal beast had ripped away the blue fabric and his deep chested roar was enough to incite panic in many of the soldiers. Men stood at his feet with drawn weapons, coming barely to his knees. With each swipe of the beast’s long arms, the number of men at his feet decreased by five. Lissa found Phillip’s body after a few steps. His corpse lay twisted on the rocks so that she could see his lifeless eyes even though he had landed face first. She had to be certain. After the cliff at Carre-Routh, she had to know that the life was truly out of his body. Lissa's hand found Phillip’s brow. The body was already going cold.

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For this to happen this way, at this place, after everything they had been through almost defied rationalization. Lissa did not know what to do. Of one thing she was sure. The man she thought could not die, the heir to King Artimus Abnell, was now truly dead. Lissa removed her hand and took a last look at the lifeless face of the heir. Even if they had not shared words, they had shared the extraordinary experiences life can bring. She felt her heart break a little. Perhaps she even felt something more, like a part of her had died with him. Lissa steeled herself quickly, as only a survivor of a hard life can. There was nothing else to do but go help La Forge. She jumped through the rocks, looking toward the space where the tent had stood and seeing that the number of men at the beast’s feet was now only two. One of them was La Forge. The other was the sandy haired young man with the lightning sword they had seen at the stream with the Septenrule. The Lorre soldier La Forge had told her was so dangerous. The boy named Jonah. Again, the two men faced a horrible monster. The creature moved very fast, his hands swiping up great scoops of dirt when they swung low in attempt to wipe away the two men. Both warriors danced in front of the raging beast, one urging the beast forward while the other attacked from the side or the rear. Others were content to fire arrows at the beast from afar, but these did not begin to pierce the creature’s thick skin. The thief ran across the field, holding her sword aloft as she picked her way through the rocks.

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“Lissa, no,” La Forge yelled without looking her way. “Stay back!” She stopped as the two swordsmen continued their deadly game. They both moved like wraiths, blindingly fast and in concert, like one knew what the other was thinking, like the two of them had fought together a hundred times before. Elsewhere, confusion was turning into action. Both sides thought the beast was an instrument of the other. Arms were gathered. Arrows floated out from the city walls, seeking enemies on the far end of their effective range. More ropes had been dropped over the outer wall. Red booted men were scaling down to the field. Even as the two warrior's battled the beast, another fight was beginning around them as the hordes of the Glaserathe surged out of the trees to take on the men of the King’s Warrior. Lissa joined the red booted soldiers and ran out to meet the advancing Glaserathe, the two mobs slamming into each other at breakneck speed. In the initial clash a huge man swinging a mace almost took off Lissa’s head. She rolled to the ground and in the swell of bodies could not regain her feet. She was near panic when a glove reached down and jerked her up. It was the man from the wharf, Yulerick, who pushed her behind him as he continued to fight, his big axe cutting a wide swath through the enemy. But the elite Rondian troops were greatly outnumbered and even though many barbarians fell at their feet, the soldiers were pushed back toward the castle wall, cut off from their leader, La Forge. There was a collective pause in the struggle as a great white light swirled overhead, dancing across the sky. As it swept downward, the light caused many to shield their eyes or look away. Lissa turned to La Forge, who stood on a rock near the beast. He

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held his sword in the air and the light struck his weapon, like lightning drawn to a tall tree. La Forge’s sword glowed, then he pointed the weapon at the beast and yelled a command. Fire shot from the end of his sword and struck the beast in the chest. In the blinding flash of light Lissa saw the huge creature fly backwards, onto an onrushing horde of Glaserathe. Then, once she looked back at him, she saw that La Forge was running their way. He had a body slung over his shoulder. The red booted men fought their way to their leader and escorted him to the wall. The body was tied to a rope and hoisted up. Lissa saw the horror on the faces of the men around her and guessed what it meant. “King Abnell?” she asked La Forge as he barked commands to the men around him. La Forge stopped for an instant and looked skyward, then back to her. “It is,” he said. “He lives yet, but if he dies the chain of Minstre-Veeha will be broken. The city will not survive this assault.” Lissa did not have a chance to fully understand what that meant. As La Forge tried to extricate them from their position next to the wall a dark haired man stood on the very rock from which the warrior had toppled the huge beast. “There he is,” the man yelled while pointing to La Forge. “The only one capable of such magic! The right hand of Artimus Abnell still flourishes in the forbidden arts. He has lured us into believing his master wanted peace, when all he wanted was a chance to destroy us.” “No!” La Forge yelled over the din, “Whoever controls these brown wizards is the one who seeks to destroy the Council of Five. I call for another parley.”

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“There will be no more chances for your treachery,” the dark haired man yelled. “There will be no more talks!” “You do not speak for the Council,” La Forge said. “And you cannot speak for Abnell when it comes to this Council,” the man roared. The man, Dunsten, was the leader of the hordes of Glaserathe. He stood on the boulder, brought a horn to his lips and let forth with a long, soulful note. As if emerging from a deep slumber, the valley began to echo with the cries of men called to war. “He has called more of the hordes,” an officer said to La Forge. “The sheer numbers of Glaserathe will allow them to overrun us. We must get inside the walls.” “This is the last chance for peace,” La Forge said. “Sir, that chance has been lost.” Through all their adventures Lissa had never seen La Forge angry. He had a selfcontrol that she envied. He lost that composure now. Deep, red splotches burned under his skin. His body began to shake. La Forge cried out with fury, then threw his arms toward the soldiers massing in front of them. Some great, unseen wind blew every man down, save one. Jonah remained standing while those around him fell like wheat before the scythe. He looked about, not understanding why he maintained his feet when all the others could not. Horses bucked and ran away. The men on the ground shook themselves, checking to see if they were whole. Some climbed slowly back to their feet, while others stayed on the ground. All looked at La Forge in terror. La Forge advanced, and as he did, his voice boomed through the valley.

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“Some unseen force is at work here! Not the work of myself, nor Artimus Abnell, nor anyone of these shores. This Council is being torn apart when it must stay together!” Lissa followed the warrior as he walked through the enemy. Dunsten of the Glaserathe had gained his feet again and cried for his personal guard to rally around him as La Forge advanced. None moved to his defense. La Forge came to a halt short of the rock. Two faced him. The boy from Lorre, and the leader of the hordes. “Slay us if you will,” Dunsten sneered, “but you cannot stop what has been set into motion. Merlick is finished!” La Forge looked at the stunned troops around them. Then he turned to the slain beast. And finally, to the site where his own king had fallen. His shoulders slumped. “I can ask only for saner heads to prevail once this rush of anger has subsided. If you wage war on Merlick, just know I will make you pay dearly. Many will die.” “Not even the King’s Warrior can stand against the forces gathering here,” Dunsten said. “I stand ready to give my life today, right now, if it rallies my hordes and hastens your defeat.” Lissa looked around. The men around them were pushing forward once again, still afraid of the great warrior in front of them, but ready to fight, nonetheless. “None of you will fight me today,” La Forge yelled, then he pointed to the sandyhaired Lorre boy, “although your time, Jonah, may be coming.” La Forge turned and led Lissa through the gathering swarm of the enemy. No one raised a finger to stop them.

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Once they reached the Rondian lines, the men parted slightly to let them pass. As soon as they were within their own ranks, a cry went up and blades rang out as the large horde crashed into the smaller one. The castle gates were at last clear of refugees and a troop of Rondian cavalry galloped onto the plains. The castle walls were suddenly thick with archers, who loosed a deadly barrage on the advancing enemy. As Lissa looked up, a huge projectile rocketed over the wall, flew across the valley and crashed into the trees. With Lissa and a seemingly distracted La Forge secure in their center, the red booted men fought their way toward the castle gate. When she passed the site where Phillip had fallen, Lissa tried to search among the bodies in the hope of reclaiming his. But none of the faces she saw belonged to the heir, and there were too many to check them all. The Rondian soldiers were pushing her onward. La Forge did not seem to notice her intense interest in the bodies strewn about the rocks, and she was filled with dread knowing the time would come when she would have to deliver her catastrophic news. At last, they passed through the castle gates in a mass of soldiers. A few Glaserathe men, in their murderous frenzy, actually fought their way inside with the Rondian soldiers. They were quickly cut down. The courtyard itself was awash with activity. The projectiles she’d seen fly over the wall were being launched from weapons called catapults, and they were as big as houses. She counted at least ten of them down the length of the wall. The cavalry galloped back into the courtyard, some of the men slumped in their saddles from wounds she could not see. La Forge turned and watched as the great gates

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swung shut in the face of the advancing horde. No sooner were they shut than men began bracing them with additional timbers. La Forge turned and walked away. Lissa struggled to stay on his heels. Former allies were now enemies. The siege of Castle Merlick had begun.

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Torches flickered in the great marble anteroom, casting an eerie glow as La Forge received one military report after another. The reports were not promising. All four armies had now arrived in force and were encamped outside the walls of the Rondian city. Steps were being taken to hold the city, but the numbers aligned against them were staggering. King Abnell had been taken into a room nearby. The building they were in was just off the outer wall and was connected to the wall by a bridge over the broad avenue below, what Lissa imagined was a kind of forward observation post for the commander of such a large city. La Forge was also getting updates about the other sides of the city. He had seen firsthand the developments outside the east wall; now he was learning about the other locations. With each report he offered quick and decisive responses. Then the men ran off to do his bidding. “He calls for you,” an aide suddenly shouted. “I know,” La Forge said, gesturing for Lissa to follow him. As she approached the door a guard blocked her way. Lissa pointed at the back of the warrior, but the guard shook his head and La Forge was gone.

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“Sorry, my Lady, but even the King’s Warrior does not get everything he wants. My orders are that you may not pass.” The wait was interminable. Others came and went. There was much pacing and nervousness among the group gathered outside the doorway. Lissa thought perhaps hours had passed, but it was impossible to tell. Finally, La Forge emerged. He looked grim. “I have done all within my power,” he announced to the small crowd. “Only time will tell.” La Forge walked through the room and onto the bridge that connected the building to the wall. Lissa followed. And her mouth dropped open when she saw the fields beyond. She had not thought it possible to put more men into such a space than had been there before. She was wrong. The moment had come. There had been no chance outside the presence of others to mention it until now. “Phillip is dead,” Lissa said suddenly. La Forge nodded, unsurprised. “You are certain of it?” “I saw him go off the wall. Before I could stop him, he jumped, like you did, and I did, only he had no rope. I saw his eyes once he hit the ground. I felt his skin. There was no life in him.” “I felt something besides the injuries to the King.” La Forge closed his eyes, his lips moving slowly as he sought something deep within himself. “You are wrong. The heir is alive.” “No, La Forge, that is impossible. I saw him fall. I found his lifeless body on the rocks at the base of the wall.”

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“And I saw him fall off Carre-Routh.” La Forge shook his head. “If I could get my feelings straight, I might be able to find him. Perhaps it is the boy of Lorre who creates my confusion. But I feel something there. Something else that stirs the power within me. No, the heir lives yet. He is out in the trees. Someone has taken him in.” “This is that Minstre-Veeha you have spoken of?” “Yes, it is. Until recently I thought you were the only one left. Now I think differently.” Lissa knew La Forge was distraught and wondered if she should keep her silence. She couldn’t. “Will you explain more to me about what it means?” Lissa asked. “MinstreVeeha?” La Forge took a flask and drank deeply from it. That done he wiped his mouth and offered it to her. “It is a culture of servitude. Servitude to one. In my case, King Abnell. He gives me the power to serve him. And the power I wield in his name is tied to him and to his direct blood descendants. My power is also tied to his proximity. The further I get from my liege, the less power I have.” “That’s why you struggled with the arts when we met? At the inn? At CarreRouth?” “I was a long way from my source of power. When I was younger it did not affect me as much. The only reason I was able to do what I did was because I was in his service, but it took a toll.” “And those things you did today?” “My power is much greater in his presence.” La Forge glanced back the way they had come, at the building across the avenue. His bright blue eyes were muted. He looked

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tired and sad. “If Abnell should die, and if the heir is taken from us, then the power within me will die as well. In his present state, Phillip would do me no good anyway. There is a role the heir must play. If the heir lives, but does not recover more of his faculties, then I will not be able to go through the submission process on his behalf, and my power will die. Not that I am destined to submit to him.” La Forge touched her arm. “My dreams tell me that honor belongs to another.” Lissa ignored the remark. She had seen the body. She knew Phillip was dead, despite what La Forge said. “What will happen to you? If, the gods forbid, Abnell should die?” “At that moment my body will start to take an accounting of the aging my power has helped me defy.” La Forge chuckled and she was surprised to see real amusement behind it. “In short order, I will become the old man I am supposed to be. And soon thereafter, I will pass from this world.” Lissa studied him for a moment. “How is it that you do not look as sad as you should at such a prospect?” “I have been in King Abnell's employ for a long time. I think I am due a rest. It is the defense of this place, of these people, that weighs on my mind. I will not be able to help as I should. Terrible things will happen.” Lissa wasn’t sure what to say to that. La Forge turned back to the hordes beyond the wall. “The walls will be breached. Count on that. The city has grown too large and our foes' numbers too great to keep them from gaining the outer wall. But we have planned for such an occurrence. Between the outer walls and the keep, the city will be won or lost. Once the outer wall is breeched, our

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retreat to our next line is already planned. You must not find yourself in front of our next line of defense. Do you understand?” Lissa nodded. “If Abnell dies and the city falls, there will be no holding back the hordes of Glaserathe,” La Forge said. “Or the troops of Lindou, for that matter. The city will be pillaged; those who survive will be sold into slavery, or worse.” He took her hands in his. “I tell you this because I want you to live. I can arrange to get you out of the city. You have done your service to this kingdom and much more than was asked of you. I promise you, Phillip is alive. He is out there. Perhaps it is time to give your future a chance to find you.” “You have given me hope. You have shown me things beyond reason or explanation. And now I am expected to just walk away?” She squeezed his hands and then let them go. “Have you ever had a family, La Forge?” He appeared surprised at the question. “The life I led did not leave time for such things.” “You are pained by what has happened to your king. Isn’t there someone who can comfort you in your grief?” A rueful smile spread across his severe face. “There is no time for such considerations. If my king is going to die, then I must do my best for the kingdom while I still can.” Lissa considered what he said. “If they gain the walls, then the fighting may go house to house. A good thief could help in that endeavor.”

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“Given your selfless history as of late, you are hardly living up to the name of an accomplished thief.” “I have surprised myself.” He turned serious. “Search your heart, Lissa. This will be ugly business. I would welcome your company, but you must understand. While the power is still in me, I intend to wage total war against our enemy. We cannot beat them out there, before the walls. They are too many. So I plan to lure them into the city. Then I am going to kill as many of them as I can.”

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Burning arrows cast long trails of light in their wake before clattering into the courtyard. Lissa and La Forge were hunched behind the outer wall with hundreds of La Forge’s soldiers. It was still too dark to see the legions of men opposite them, but they knew they were there. The Rondians had been listening to their attackers get into position all night. More flaming arrows burst from the trees like a flock of birds, traced a red path through the sky, then blazed down into the city. Where the arrows found wood, fires broke out. Having seen enough, La Forge sat on the parapet, his back against the wall. The clothes that had been clean only hours before were now stained with blood and sweat. He watched the men below him try to maintain calm as fires found fuel and began to spread. Once a flight of arrows landed, women rushed from nearby wells with buckets of water, handed them off to the men assigned to fight the fire, then rushed away before the next volley. The crews on the catapults found shelter under their weapons, watching the frenzy around them with a practiced nonchalance.

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“Abnell’s situation grows dire,” the King’s Warrior said. He had just returned from another audience with the Rondian leader. “He can speak, but there is bleeding within that we have not been able to stop. I fear he will not make it through the coming day.” Lissa continued to stare at the almost majestic flight of arrows over their heads, then watched as they did their deadly work among the people below. Those hit cried out and their cries mingled with the commands of the men fighting the fires. “Will we?” she asked. La Forge turned to her, a quizzical look on his face. “Will we make it through the day?” La Forge laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Yes, we will make it through this day. And the next. And the next. Castle Merlick is strong and her fall will not be easily accomplished. We have plans for just about every eventuality. But we have never faced so many at one time. And if the King dies…” The King’s Warrior left the rest unsaid. “Then a part of you does, too.” La Forge watched the next flight of arrows. “The enemy is moving forward. Let’s see what this assault holds.” They peeked over the edge of the wall. The sun’s early light cast a weak glow against the horizon. Now Lissa could see swarms of shadows milling in the trees. And as the day brightened, a horn blew, then another, then another.

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“The men of Lindou have finished crossing the river and stand before us,” La Forge said. He pointed down the wall. “Which means the hordes of Glaserathe will be attacking from that position.” The drums of the Glaserathe had been beating for hours. So great was their boom that it was hard for Lissa to pinpoint exactly where it originated, which she suspected was the point. Another, lighter horn sounded from the other side of the city. “The men of Valerees, Steward to Prince Purcsalees of Purdoem,” La Forge said. “Of the four we face, they are the ones who concern me the least. Heavy on armament and ornament are the White Knights of Purdoem. And each one dangerous in a stand up fight. But in an all out assault like this, it is the horde I fear the most. Their sheer numbers alone might be enough to gain the wall, and then they would burrow like rodents into the city.” “Then why do we wait here if the main force of the Glaserathe will attack us down there?” Lissa asked. “Because the army of Lorre came up in the night and in their midst is one single boy who could turn the tide of the assault. You know of whom I speak?” “Jonah, the boy who fought the beast with you before the walls,” Lissa said. “He also has the powers of Minstre-Veeha?” La Forge stared at her. “If I am right, then the power he carries is more dangerous than anything these lands have seen for a long time.” “You did not answer my question.”

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“That’s right. I did not. I do not know if the hearts of the Lorre people are in this fight. I fear this boy can inspire them to do things they might not do without him.” “So why don’t we wait on the north wall, before the army of Lorre?” “Because the one of whom we speak is here. The boy Jonah waits where the armies of Lindou and Glaserathe meet. Perhaps he tends to the Queen of Lorre. I suspect that straight ahead is where the leaders of our enemies meet and plan.” “You can feel him?” “I can. Also, I want to see the men of Lindou. Forces are at work there that are not natural. Uptona, their leader, is evil, and a far cry from the man who led them previously. I can only wonder what price Uptona paid to attain the Lindou crown. And to whom he paid that price. But it was Lindou who stole away the heir. It was near Lindou that we saw the first brown wizard. I believe Lindou is at the root of this.” La Forge turned to a soldier beside him. “There are the siege towers, coming forward now. I count six of them. All Lindou design. And at least thirty ladders.” Lissa strained to see but saw nothing. “The towers are pulled by Phantoons,” La Forge said to the soldier. “I will handle the beasts. Tell the archers to key on those carrying ladders,” La Forge urged as the man rushed away. “Forget the towers!” “What is a Phantoon?” Lissa asked. “You shall see soon enough.” La Forge cast another look at the enemy. “Have you ever been in a battle? Not a fight, but a battle?” She shook her head no.

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“Once they gain the wall you must focus on the man in front of you. No matter how many there are, they are stopped one at a time.” A queer light shone in his blue eyes. “Remember, no matter how bad it looks, the city will be won or lost in stages. This is but the first stage. Protect yourself. Fall back when the order comes. They will come in a mad rush. We will lose track of each other, shortly.” A roar went up from the walls. Lissa turned to the battlefield and saw a ragged line of men running their way. Then another line came into view. And another. The lines stretched as far down the walls as she could see. She counted ten such lines, then twenty. Then she lost count. “Help us, gods,” she whispered. La Forge stood at the edge of the wall and yelled something into the courtyard. At his words the men around the great catapults jumped into motion. She watched with fascination and horror as the great machines hurled large projectiles over the wall. The men worked with deadly efficiency and the catapults spit rocks over the wall faster than she would have thought possible. Lissa stood as she tracked one of the big rocks tumbling through the air and watched it slam into a line of men, tearing up a section of turf before it rolled to a stop. More and more projectiles arced through the air, plummeted downward, then rumbled across the field, sweeping away huge sections of men like they never existed. Lissa also noted that after each successful shot, more men immediately moved into the empty spaces in the lines. The lines wavered at times, even fell apart after a particularly brutal bash, but like waves in the sea, the lines of men kept rolling toward Merlick’s walls.

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La Forge took her arm and pulled her down so that only her head showed above the wall. In her fascination she had completely forgotten about the endless flights of arrows that still dropped inside the city. “I will be back,” La Forge said. “Watch yourself.” With a stern look, he gave her arm a quick squeeze, then ran down the rampart, disappearing among a sea of waiting Rondian archers. Lissa did not have time to wonder where he was going. Turning back to look over the wall, she could now see the siege towers that La Forge had referred to. They were more like large ramps than towers; huge walls of wood, triangular in shape where the assaulting soldiers could jump onto the low end and charge up the ramp to the high end, which would touch the top of the wall. Even more fascinating were the creatures pulling the towers. Phantoons, La Forge had called them. They wore harnesses, like oxen, only these creatures were three times the size of an ox. Stout, long legs climbed up to a fat body. Huge ears dominated the head and white, curved horns emerged near the mouth. At least eight creatures pulled each tower. Slowly, surely, the animals trudged forward as the lines of attacking men swarmed around them. The animals stamped and swung their big heads at the men unfortunate enough to come within their range. “Key on the ladders,” a man called near her. “Fire!” The archers along the wall drew back their bows and fired. It was as if the whole wall spit arrows out of it, so many that the sky would have been darkened from anyone underneath their flight.

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Unlike the arrows of the enemy, these arrows sought targets that had nowhere to hide, and the effects were devastating. Huge pieces of the first line fell. Where ladders went down other groups of men stooped to pick them up and carry them forward. Again the arrows flew out from the Rondian wall, again with punishing effect. Then a sudden howling cut through the air, something with a fury that overwhelmed the sounds of a battlefield. Friend and foe alike turned. Lissa spotted a figure on a nearby tower of the castle. The figure held his hands above his head and called out into the air. La Forge. The Phantoons stopped in their tracks. A great blue light began to swirl in the sky above the lone figure. The wavering light seemed to take up the whole sky. La Forge gestured with his arms, beckoning the light down toward him. Men on the field before Merlick stared, even as their superiors screamed at them to resume the charge. The Rondian archers stopped watching their leader and went about their ruthless business. Now that their targets were standing still, their assault was even more deadly. The blue light from the sky danced downward until its brightness tickled the white towers of Merlick. Then the howling stopped, abbreviated with one short bark of a command. The blue light exploded, flashing onto the field of battle. Men screamed. Some fled, although Lissa noted this was not like the force La Forge had sent through the men around the tent where Abnell received his wounds. Lissa

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could see no real effect of the light other than inciting terror. And nowhere was the terror more evident than in the animals. The Phantoons tore at their harnesses, breaking free and running awkwardly back toward the trees. Every animal fled, trampling the men unlucky enough to be in their path. One group of the panicked Phantoons managed to turn the siege tower they pulled and drag it back into the forest, wedging it in a tight group of trees before the harnesses finally snapped and the huge beasts ran free. Now the archers concentrated on the abandoned towers, sending lit arrows into the sides of them. Then the catapults joined in. A fireball swooshed over Lissa’s head and smashed into the side of a tower. Then another tower was struck. In minutes, every one of the siege towers was in flames. Even as all this was taking place, the wave of humanity had renewed its attack on the city walls. “Ladders!” The call went up and down the ramparts as the long ladders clanked against the walls. Enemy warriors rode the ladders as they were lifted into the sky and propped against the walls. The enemy jumped onto the parapets. Lissa held her sword tightly as a ladder slammed into the wall near her head. A man in a metal helmet came over the wall. Another was right behind him. There was no time to be afraid. The thief drew back her sword and struck.

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The first man over the wall died as soon as his feet touched the parapet. Before his body hit the ground, two more men had jumped off the ladder, landing on either side of her. Lissa fought the one to her left as another Rondian soldier clashed with the one on the right. She was stunned by the speed with which the savage looking men scurried over the wall. As soon as she dispatched one, another was there in his place. She fought until her arms grew weary, losing track of time as her sword grew heavy in her hand. Even though she fought well, Lissa gave ground before the onslaught, more and more of the enemy poured over the wall, and eventually she was pushed back to the guardhouse door. Below her she saw men running around the few remaining catapults, while the other catapults were being dragged further into the city. The Rondians were already giving way, pulling back to new firing positions. A pair of strong arms grabbed Lissa from behind, jerking her into the guardhouse. It was Yulerick. He had an angry gash on his head and was out of breath. After the chaos and din of combat, the silence within the room was disconcerting. Yulerick barred the door, then turned to her. “We go. No time to explain.”

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Lissa followed Yulerick across the high bridge over the street and into the building where Abnell had been the night before. Looking over her shoulder she could see the Glaserathe men on either side of the guard tower where they had just been. The parapets were stacked with the enemy. Some of them were lowering ropes to the road where hundreds of Rondian men waited to battle them in the street. “The enemy will cross here,” Lissa shouted to Yulerick. “Why is this crossing not defended?” “Not defended?” Yulerick yelled, with little alarm. “You and I can hold those scum back, don't you think?” No, Lissa said to herself. Once they were across the bridge, Yulerick signaled to a man far below them. Lissa watched with alarm as the Glaserathe men finally beat down the doors into the guard tower. Then she cried out when the horde appeared on the bridge, running their way. Lissa looked about her. Yulerick was serious. There were no other Rondian men to be seen. They were going to defend the crossing themselves. The Glaserathe soldiers roared as they ran across the bridge, clubs raised. Yulerick watched them come, his battle-axe in his left hand. The big warrior seemed to have no inclination to leave. Lissa felt the panic in her legs, but stood her ground. Then, suddenly, the bridge buckled and swayed. The men running across it tumbled over each other and fell.

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Lissa looked to the street as one of the massive catapults launched a boulder into the air. From a distance of only a few hundred feet, the projectile slammed into the side of the bridge. This time, a small portion of the bridge collapsed into the street below. The Glaserathe men still standing turned and started yelling for the men behind them to back up. There was too much noise. Too much smoke and confusion. It was like trying to put a cork back in a bottle. More Glaserathe men stormed onto the crossing, pushing a pile of men toward the center of the bridge. Despite the situation, Lissa found herself willing for the men to back up, to get safely off the bridge. That did not happen. The next projectile struck the bridge where it met the parapet. The bridge buckled again, then crumbled and fell, with hundreds of Glaserathe men riding it to their deaths on the street far below. “We’ll show them a fight yet,” Yulerick said, then he pulled her into the building.

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The dignitaries and others who had been huddling outside the room of King Abnell were gone. In fact, the large anteroom was empty save for La Forge, who sat on a chair with his sword leaning against his leg. There was a cut across his forehead. La Forge looked spent. His face held the same ashen look she had seen after his earlier episodes with the arts.

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“He weakens,” La Forge said answering the question on her face. “So do I.” He turned to Yulerick. “All is ready?” “The men are falling back to the second line now. Our losses have been acceptable.” “And theirs?” “Horrendous. More than we had hoped before they breached the wall. How did you fare on the other side?” La Forge shrugged. “Purdoem’s heart is out of this fight. We met them before the walls and ran them from the field. I have already repositioned our forces. What of the others?” “The hordes of Glaserathe have overrun the wall at numerous places. Lindou will have as many breaches shortly.” “What of Lorre?” La Forge asked. “They make a great show in the field, but seem to be waiting for a real assault. Perhaps the Lorre leader is having second thoughts, as you suggested she might.” Concern flashed across La Forge’s pale face. “There was another conjurer among the men of Purdoem. Another wizard in brown. I met him before the walls and killed him, but not without great effort. It was a close thing. Had there been another, I would not have fared as well.” “You think there are more of them?” Yulerick asked. “These brown wizards?” La Forge pointed to Lissa. “This was not the one she and I saw on the Plains of the River Spoon. And then there was the creature who struck the blow to Abnell. Yes, I think there are more.”

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“Who controls them?” Lissa asked. “I do not know,” La Forge said. “They seem to be advancing this war, but we shall have to study that later. These walls are overrun. We shall fall back to the next line of defense. With Purdoem out and Lorre’s hesitation, that puts the odds only at two to one against us. A number we can deal with.” La Forge climbed to his feet with great effort. He looked around the empty room and took a deep breath. “Yulerick, they have taken a piece of our city, as we allowed. They will take no more.”

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The second wall ran a few hundred feet inside the outer one. This fortification was harder to see. It was not as tall and it was placed between neat rows of houses and shops. As they walked through a gate in the wall Lissa saw the familiar sight of catapults being set up. The streets were narrower here than at the outer wall, but at the sight of more men lining the walls, Lissa allowed herself a little hope. The Rondian men had met the enemy, done as much damage as they could, then began their organized withdrawal of the whole defense to the next line. Quarters were a little tighter here than at the first line of defense, but Lissa could detect no panic on the faces of the men she saw. It was as if things were going exactly as planned. The broad doors slammed shut behind them. Lissa followed La Forge up to the top of the wall. From this vantage point, they could only see the short distance to the outer wall and nothing of the fields beyond. She could see enemy soldiers streaming into the gates that had now been opened. The outer streets of the city were filling with men from Glaserathe and Lindou. Isolated bands of Rondian soldiers who had been left on the outside of the new line called out for help and ropes were tossed down to them.

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“They stream unchecked into the city.” Lissa said. “Why not close the gap before it becomes too big?” “They can maneuver on the fields.” La Forge waved his arm at the crowded city. “Such a tight space gives us a chance to combat their superior numbers. Look at them come. At this point, it would be nearly impossible to fire an arrow without hitting something. And, it will be nigh impossible for them to drag their siege apparatus into the city for a second assault.” Yulerick approached. “My Lord, the Ring of Fire has been released as you ordered. In ten minutes the outer city will reek of the stuff. There is a chance someone will pick up the scent and figure it out.” “The Ring of Fire?” Lissa asked. “They are crazed with the victory they think they have won, Yulerick. They will assume it is the scent of our fear.” La Forge stared at the lines of men scurrying into the city. “They have brought their hell down upon our country. Now it is my turn to deliver hell to them.” He turned so that only she could hear him. He brought his hand to his heart, his face pained. “Abnell weakens further. There is not much time. If I do something, assume I have a reason. And if I ask something of you, you must do it without a second thought. Do you understand?” She did not understand, but Lissa solemnly nodded her head.

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The rest of the day passed with them on the wall, watching as the horde below swelled. La Forge was content to let them gain strength. The warrior received reports from different parts of the city every few minutes and he dispatched the runners back with a quick judgment and as few words as possible. As the sun settled behind the outer walls, La Forge left her there. He was gone for a few hours. When he returned, his foundation seemed shaken. She knew then that he had been to see King Abnell. “Not much longer now,” La Forge said to Yulerick, in what she assumed was a reference to the stricken royal. “We must move now. I will light it from outside the wall, where my power will do the most damage.” She stood beside Yulerick as La Forge slipped into the crowd. “Smell that?” Yulerick said, drawing in an exaggerated breath. “Sometimes even a conjurer as great as La Forge needs a little help.” Lissa sniffed. She smelled it, too. A sickly sweet smell she could not place. “What is that?” she asked. “Death,” Yulerick said.

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Lissa was resting against the wall, her head on her knees, when something pulled her from a restless slumber. She staggered to her feet, drunk with weariness and not trusting her eyes at what she first saw.

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It was night. The ground outside the inner gate was cast in a weak light from torches thrown over the wall by the Rondian men. The streets outside the gate must have held thousands of the enemy. They kept their distance, huddled behind their own makeshift fortifications – doors, tables, whatever they could find that would protect them from the archers along the Rondian walls. The enemy lined the streets all the way back to the original wall of defense, packed between the buildings and preparing no doubt to launch an all out assault on the Rondian fortifications. And La Forge was standing before them. Knowing the heart of a fighting man, Lissa imagined what they must have thought. They looked for the white flag from this lone figure who had left the safety of the fortifications. Their enemy probably expected some symbol of a parlay that would lead to acquiescence, or even submission. Looking at this teeming mass of soldiers, she got the impression they would only accept the latter. Once the figure emerged from the shadow of the wall and stood to his full bearing in the bright light of the torches, they saw not a man intent on surrender, but a warrior ready to fight. La Forge held his sword in both hands and pointed the weapon out to them. Here he was, outside the protected walls. Such was the knowledge of his power that the enemy cowed at first, waiting for his magic, waiting for more men to emerge from the gate behind him. When this did not happen they began to move forward. They moved within point blank range of the Rondian archers, but, mysteriously, the archers remained motionless. They moved to within feet of the single waiting warrior. Then they stopped.

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There was not one among them who seemed to have the courage to launch the initial attack, to begin the onslaught that would instantly overrun the warrior, no matter his might or abilities. Then one did step forward. Of average build and height, this swordsman hesitantly emerged from the crowd, his last step helped by another who shoved him in the back. The man of Lindou held his sword aloft, calling out to the men around him with a voice that sounded weak and uncertain, then he jumped forward to meet the King’s Warrior. La Forge parried the first blow, then the second, then his blade ran true and the soldier from Lindou fell. The silence was such that Lissa, from her perch on the wall, could hear the assailant’s sword clang onto the street. La Forge then called out in a tongue she did not understand. A low hum of discontent went up from the enemy around him, and several began to back away at the sight of the conjurer at work. La Forge took one hand from his sword and drew it into a fist, calling louder and louder toward the sky. Then the King’s Warrior opened his hand and a blue flame flickered in his palm. He spoke to it, and the flame gained intensity. Many of the enemy soldiers were trying to back away now. They didn’t know what was about to happen, and they did not want to find out. But it was too late. Too many of them were packed into quarters that were too tight. La Forge yelled something at them, but Lissa could not distinguish what he said. The blue flame sprang forth from his palm like a bird taking flight. The flame seemed to touch something in the gutters running along both sides of the street, and with a whoosh, traveled down the street faster than the eye could see.

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All the breath was instantly sucked out of the air. So suddenly it was impossible to fathom, the entire outer city was engulfed in a bright blue explosion that climbed up toward the sky, casting off enough heat to singe Lissa’s hair before she dropped below the top of the wall. While the thief huddled on the parapet and tried to understand what she had just witnessed, she was tormented by the screams coming from the other side of the wall. La Forge had given them their total war, and Lissa knew that she was listening to thousands of men die.

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Lissa wondered if she would go to the grave with those screams in her ears. They seemed to last forever as the blue haze on the other side of the wall did its terrible work. Finally, the blue light subsided to an eerie glow before dying altogether, leaving total darkness in its wake. Then the cries of the wounded could be heard, pitiful pleas from among the charred wood and rubble. The Rondian men watched from the walls as the burned soldiers of Glaserathe and Lindou staggered through the streets below them. La Forge had lured the enemy into tight quarters, and where there had been many, there were now only a few, and those who wandered about looked dead on their feet. La Forge appeared on the parapet. Yulerick had seen him approach and also came forward. The King’s Warrior surveyed the damage. There was pain on his face, his eyes were rimmed with red, and yet, when he looked down on the destruction he had caused, Lissa saw no sympathy or compassion. When he turned to her, it was as if he read her thoughts. “Atrocities were committed as they marched toward Merlick. I gave back to them what they brought to our people.” “The smell?” Lissa said. “That was the Ring of Fire that was released?”

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La Forge shrugged, almost distracted as he talked. “The Ring of Fire was always part of the plan to defend the city when circumstances were dire. My magic provided the spark, but human effort provided the fuel. Sometimes even magic needs a little help.” La Forge paused, lost in thought. Then he seemed to make a decision. He brought Yulerick in closer, so that their three heads almost touched. When he spoke his voice cracked. “There is something more. Something you must not breathe to anyone. We have lost King Abnell to the ages. The men must not know until our victory is complete.” He turned to Lissa. “Yulerick, and now you, understand the consequences of the King’s death regarding Minstre-Veeha. For now, no one else must know.” La Forge stared down at the wandering enemy below. “There is power in me yet while Abnell’s body is still warm. There are so many issues to be resolved. So many questions that need answering. And there is the matter of the heir. You can rest easy, Lissa, Phillip lives. I felt him clearly as soon as Abnell’s void began. Phillip is moving away from Merlick. I know not where he goes or who has him, but we must find him.” “Will you tell the Kingdom that the heir is alive?” Yulerick asked. “Before they name a successor?” “To bring him before the Rondian people in his state would be folly.” “Then there will be a fight over succession,” Yulerick said. “Friend, that is my fear as well. And whoever wins that struggle will expect my powers to be at his service, even while those powers have begun to expire as we speak. But, we have more urgent matters at the moment. Yulerick, we can wait no longer. We

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must venture outside the walls and attack any forces that remain. We must finish them off now, or we risk the chance that they will regroup and destroy us later.” “I will make it so,” Yulerick said with a nod. As he left, La Forge turned back to Lissa. “The young swordsman of Lorre has gone. I don’t understand his place within our lives, but I know one thing for certain and you must accept this as written in stone. That boy, Jonah, is destined to kill you, or you to kill him. Nothing can prevent it. It is as certain as the rising sun.” Lissa was stunned. She opened her mouth to question him, but La Forge cut her off. “You must simply take what I say as absolute truth. Never turn your back on Jonah. I suspected this before and that was why I wanted to seek him out. But he is gone from the field, now. I know not where.” “If Phillip carries his father’s blood, then couldn’t he save you? Couldn’t you attach yourself to Phillip and live?” “The honor of that attachment will belong to another.” “Why?” “Some things we get to chose Lissa, and some things chose us.” “So what you said about Phillip with me, do you still believe that to be true?” “I do.” “Have you ever been wrong about such things before?” La Forge cast his face downward. “I have been wrong about many things, including this,” with a sweep of his arm indicating the devastation below them. “It was I who counseled Abnell on this course of action. It was I who brought this war on our

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heads. But no, regarding what I have seen about you, and the things I have said about Jonah, the Lorre warrior, no, I am not wrong.” “Then I must find Phillip. You said he lives; I must go find him.” “Finding him will not be enough, Lissa. You will need time with him. You will have to teach him to talk as a man, to explain his feelings and thoughts. With MinstreVeeha there is a submission ritual that must be undertaken. Unless Phillip can contribute to that process, then I do not see how it can work.” She could see there was something else the warrior wanted to tell her. She gestured with her hands for him to go on, but he hesitated. “Tell me the rest of it,” Lissa pleaded. “All right, listen closely, because there is not much time and I want to be certain you have this information. This battle came to pass because the Council of Five was approached by men from across the Sea of Ice, from the far lands from which our ancestors came. For a long time now, the Sea was thought impassable and all who ventured out there did not return. That is no longer the case. These men came before the Council and demanded a tribute, or else they would invade. The tribute was small. The others inside the Council of Five voted to pay it.” “And Abnell did not?” “On my counsel,” La Forge said. “The size of the tribute was the problem. It was too small. It convinced me that these men from across the Great Sea sought something else. They had come to us demanding money. I think we gave them so much more. Information, and, ultimately, division, which destroyed our power. The heir went missing shortly after King Abnell stood up to the Council regarding the tribute. I suspect now this

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was all part of a greater plan. The Council threatened war against us if we did not comply with their wishes. Perhaps we were distracted by the missing child, but we would not give in to their demands. It was the first time in the history of our union that one has stood up to four, and the Council moved against us without our knowledge, thinking their preemptive actions would prevent a larger struggle with the armies from across the seas.” “That’s when you found me?” “Yes. All of this had been set in motion about the time I found you in that wayward inn.” “But how did you find me?” Lissa asked. “And why now?” La Forge never got to answer the question. Yulerick called to him. La Forge waved the big soldier on. “Lissa, this will be an ugly task. There is no need for you to go outside the walls.” Lissa drew herself up. “You tell me all these things about my life, you tell me about these orders that could dictate my life, but you will not tell me how to live my life. If you go outside the gates among the enemy, then I will go with you.” “So be it,” said the King’s Warrior.

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CHAPTER 36

The gates swung open onto fire and death. Flames still ate at some of the buildings between the first and second walls. Wounded men staggered in and out of drifting clouds of smoke. They called for mercy. Indifference was all that was offered as the cavalry of the King’s Warrior rode toward their next battle. With La Forge at the head of the column, they rode for the outer wall, intending to destroy what remained of the enemy. The battle had also taken its toll on the Rondian numbers, and Lissa was shocked at the small size of the force that went forward. When they passed through the outer wall into the field they met their first resistance. A troop of Lindou cavalry bravely rode forward. The skirmish lasted only minutes before the Lindou men, whose hearts were not in the fight, melted back into the relative safety of the trees. La Forge called out to his troops, reformed their lines, then turned the whole force toward a mass of Glaserathe soldiers who were also forming for an assault. Then a rider appeared between the two bodies of men. Lissa was surprised to see it was a woman.

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The Glaserathe men held back as the woman rode toward the Rondian line. La Forge called out a caution to the archers, whose bowstrings were straining for a shot at the lone rider. Lissa noted that the woman held herself with the grace of royalty, despite her dirty clothes and dented armor. Long red hair escaped from her helmet and her sword remained sheathed as her horse galloped toward them. “Lissa, come with me,” La Forge called. He urged his horse forward to meet the rider. Lissa followed La Forge, who stopped when he came to within a few paces of the woman. The woman did not dismount, and neither did they. Two great lines posed on either side of them, ready to collide, as the small party of three met. “Morgan, my army is unscathed and waits within the trees. You have mounted a fine defense, but at my command the city could be ours.” La Forge tipped his head and for an instant his long black hair obscured his face. “If I am to be conquered by a foe, then I can think of no better than the fine mountain folk of Lorre.” “But you have no intention of being conquered?” La Forge smiled. “Not while I still live. Nor do you, for that matter.” Now it was the woman’s turn to smile, and when she did so, it lit up her face. She removed her helmet and held it in her left hand. Lissa thought the woman was beautiful. And older than she would have guessed. Perhaps a contemporary of the King’s Warrior. “Queen Benetin of Lorre, may I present Lissa Arethaddle,” La Forge said. Not a contemporary at all. She was the leader of the Lorre people.

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Queen Benetin dipped her head. Lissa simply returned the gesture, but was certain she should do something more. “You are a fortunate woman to train at the hands of such a man,” the Queen of Lorre said. “And perhaps a talented one, too. La Forge sees things the rest of us do not.” Lissa was not sure if that was a slight or a compliment, so she did not respond. “Benetin, commit your men or not. The Rondian troops have marched forth to end this war. Right now.” “This conversation should be with Artimus Abnell. Not even a warrior as great as yourself makes policy for that man.” “Obviously, you know what happened when our leader went forward to broker a peace. His wounds are grievous. I am sorry, but you must make do with us.” Queen Benetin nodded. “Send Artimus my best wishes. Many have died or been wounded on the field before his castle. He has served his people well. And you have served your king well. Now I come to ask for your grace. The men before you are exposed. Their leaders, Dunsten and Uptona, perished in your blue fire. They are terrified of your power. I ask you to show them mercy. Allow them safe passage back to their kingdoms.” La Forge was taken aback by the request. “Why, exactly, would I do that now? Why would I show them the mercy they have not shown us?” “Because your king’s suspicions were correct. Or perhaps his actions only hastened the inevitable. But look at what has happened to us, a once strong alliance of five kingdoms. Now there are riders among us. Strange men. I believe they come in advance of the invasion King Abnell feared.”

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“What banner do these riders carry?” “None. They have skin the color of snow. We fear they have come from across the Great Sea of Ice.” “What of the wizards in brown robes? What do you know of them?” Queen Benetin shook her head. “I know nothing, except they are gone. I think they accomplished exactly what they set out to do. They pitted us against each other. They took a powerful alliance and reduced it to five depleted kingdoms.” “It would take more than a few unknown soldiers, even those from across the Great Sea of Ice, to worry the battle-tested Queen of Lorre with her mountain fortress. These riders you speak of. What do you really know of them?” Benetin’s horse stamped his foot, then used his tail to swat a fly. The Lorre ruler ran one hand along the mount’s neck to calm him. “A small armored caravan with some of our provisions encountered these riders as they traveled here. Ours are simple men, farmers and blacksmiths, who have been called to duty to help Lorre, but they are steady men. Once they realized they were being followed, and well aware they could outrun no one, the caravan set up an ambush. Only three riders appeared. The ambush went as planned and all three were struck down with arrows. Our men celebrated their victory, but as they did so, the men they had just shot picked themselves up and remounted their horses. Again, these men were struck down, and again they rose. These unknown warriors plodded on, no matter what happened to them. According to the men of my caravan, these men cannot be killed.” At those words, Lissa thought of Phillip, and she suspected La Forge thought of the same.

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“Several men in the caravan stayed to fight while the rest escaped. We have heard nothing from those men who stayed behind, and can only assume they are dead.” La Forge gestured to the line of men behind the Queen. “If a serious force is brought to this side of the Sea, then it will take more than this bunch to defend their kingdoms.” “They can go home and alert their families, Morgan. Seek shelter somewhere.” She shrugged. “I do not know. I do know that the army of Lorre will soon be preparing to march, should you heed my words. We wish to go home to defend our coast. If we are not too late.” Her horse stamped impatiently, as if reading the thoughts of its rider. Queen Benetin hesitated, then said, “Morgan, there are prophesies in the Lorre literature about a great human annihilation, where realms from either side of the Great Sea of Ice meet each other in a cataclysmic battle. At the same time, another group sweeps down from the north. The Bon'dun, or Men of Cloth, they are called, and they search the battlefield in this time of great weakness and seek the souls of unworthy men. It is said the Men of Cloth claim so many that the battle is lost for both sides, and that both realms enter a period of lost hope and great darkness.” “The Bon’dun Raiders are the stuff of legend. Do you truly believe they exist?” “Do you?” “I have heard others foretell these events,” La Forge said. “It has been said that within the great struggle would be two warriors. And that one of the warriors would walk the path of light…”

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“And the soul of the other would follow the path of darkness,” Queen Benetin finished. “The prophecy states that one of these two warriors must die at the hands of the other. And as their struggle goes, so goes the fate of man.” Lissa was paying close attention to what was being said. The prophecy they spoke of mirrored what La Forge had just told her. And she wondered what her face betrayed, as Queen Benetin stared at her. La Forge tried to deflect attention away from her. “Of course, such tales are often hatched in inns by bards fed and boarded for just such imaginative words. I have heard many such prophesies that never came to pass.” The red headed royal shrugged. “And yet this one seems to be following the Lorre legend without error. I think I am beginning to see things more clearly now myself. Morgan, perhaps there is more you would like to tell me about your young companion?” La Forge glanced at Lissa, then turned back. “The Lorre people are served well by their wise Queen. You feel certain this invasion is coming?” “What do you think?” La Forge sat silently on his horse for a moment, then nodded. “My heart tells me you are right. I will look further into the prophecy.” “No offense intended to so great a warrior as yourself, but I suspect you already have.” “There is no more I may say at this time,” La Forge said. “I will use my powers to understand this impending invasion from the ancient lands and the men who are involved, but it will take time.”

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“Time we do not have. Lorre would be grateful for any information you can pass our way.” Silent for a moment, her gaze circling the battlefield on which they met, she looked disheartened. “It grieves me to see such destruction and death for the Rondian people. You must relay to Artimus Abnell that although we rode in war to his gates, the Queen of Lorre also defied the wishes of the other Council members. I could not bring myself to throw our men against such a fine ally. In the end, I understood and agreed with his wise counsel. I only wish we had not set out on such a fool hardy mission, so thoroughly manipulated by those who wished to divide us.” La Forge nodded. “Had the hearty Lorre fighters participated, our defenses would not have held. King Abnell knows you held back your forces.” La Forge nodded again, convincing himself, and then said, “The Rondian people trust your wisdom, Queen Benetin. Tell the men of Glaserathe and Lindou that if they will leave the field of battle at once and ride back to their homes, then I will not stop them.” He looked over his shoulder at the Castle Merlick. “Those men who remain within our gates will not have such a pardon. There are crimes against our citizens to answer for.” Queen Benetin bowed her head. “I understand and appreciate your fairness.” As she turned her horse, La Forge called to her. “If you are right, then Lorre, with its vast coast, will be the first to know. When we are able, some among us will travel to Lorre to witness any troubles for ourselves and to lend our swords, if need be. If your concerns are correct, then the Council of Five must be forged together again, or none of us will survive.” Queen Benetin’s smile was genuine. “Perhaps Lissa Arethaddle will accompany you. I have a feeling I have not seen the last of her.”

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Lissa watched as the beautiful queen galloped her horse to the line of men standing opposite the Rondian troops. She spoke briefly, and within minutes the soldiers began to turn away. “Morgan, does the Queen know about Jonah?” “You are a smart girl, Lissa, and wise to hold your tongue. I do not think she does. She has the prophecy on her mind, but I do not think the Lorre ruler knows that one among her soldiers is gifted in the arts.” La Forge and Lissa retreated to the outer wall of the castle. La Forge gave commands as his men rounded up those still within the city, but he kept a wary eye on the movments outside the wall. She could tell his heart was heavy and his mind greatly troubled, and, finally, he voiced some of those thoughts to her. “Without the heir to calm such things, there will be a struggle for succession, here.” He gestured with his head to a group of men talking on the nearly destroyed street. “Two in particular will vie for the throne. They will expect to wield my powers, not understanding that those powers are linked to Artimus Abnell. I think we should secure the city as quickly as possible, and then steer clear of this succession fight and ride for Lorre. My heart tells me you will cross paths with Phillip yet again. There is so much more that you do not know, but I hope you will trust me enough to ride with me.” Lissa nodded. “I will ride with you to Lorre.” Even as she said it, she wrestled with the implications of his fading power and what that would bring. Sadness swept through her. As usual, La Forge seemed to be reading her mind.

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“My power may be spent, but there are at least two more in this realm who can continue the arts. One stands here before me, and one marches back to Lorre, his value hidden among the many common troops. But Jonah has a role to play in this, as well. We must take him into account at all times.” “Queen Benetin spoke of the same prophecy you told me, where one would die at the hands of the other. And yet we march to Lorre? To Jonah, who holds his allegiance to her? Are you that determined to fulfill the prophecy?” La Forge placed a hand on her shoulder. “There are other forces at work, as well. Things I still do not understand. The ability to see such things is draining from me, even now. It will not be long before I see the world as a common man does, and bleed like one as well. We must leave for Lorre before I weaken too much for the journey. It will be a long and difficult road, and on it, I must tell you more about the Order of Minstre-Veeha, and the competing, older Order of Jundin-Veeha. Both Orders potentially advance the good of man, but they are very different. Simply put, one Order shares the common will of men, and one takes the power it needs without concern for others. There is no decision about it. You are born one or the other. There is so much more knowledge I must pass on to you. If Queen Benetin is right about the prophecy, and I suspect she is, then a grave threat to all humans exists now, one superior to either of our abilities.” Lissa turned to the fields beyond the walls. Queen Benetin of Lorre stood in her stirrups, addressing another ragged group of men belonging to Lindou and Glaserathe. After a few minutes, these soldiers also began to move toward the trees. Before long, the only figure left was the Lorre ruler. She raised her arm to them in salute, silhouetted against the trees, then followed the soldiers away from the Castle Merlick.

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The battle for the Castle Merlick was over. The Council of Five was no more. Even worse, an immense invasion of all their lands seemed destined in the near future. Lissa Arethaddle, until recently a lowly thief of the Rhondian Outlands, studied the King’s Warrior’s pale face and then the great city that smoldered behind him, and she knew her own role in this struggle was about to begin.

THE END