Three Towers in Stone Forest
~One~
~**~
In the Stone Forests
~**~
Melody could see the knight at sunset.
She sat in front of the mirror and saw him riding near the stream. Three golden towers on his surcoat peeked out between the folds of his black cloak; the cloak fanned down and onto his horse’s golden flanks. The knight of Glavinore’s face was in shadow but Melody could still see its weathered lines. His hair was blacker than night and pulled back into a silver clip at the base of this neck. The knight’s eyes were the most startling of his features. They were brighter than the brightest blue. The setting sun caught them and the shine of them muted the color of the water and sky.
She thought over him and scratched at a bug bite before running a hand through her hair. Melody’s own hair was long, woody, and tangled as if birds lived in it, fell over her eyes, which glittered with uncertain color. Her eyes were as dark as the depths of the sea and they changed color with it but they held the knight now.
She brushed her hand over the mirror as if she wanted to hold him. The horse’s steady pace could take her across miles and days. The knight and his horse followed the water until nightfall. Melody longed to leave the tower and dance in the moon light but she knew that such a thing could never happen.
Leaving the tower meant certain death. The bard had made sure Melody understood the consequences before going to the tower. The warnings were easy for the younger woman to ignore. The world seemed a small price to pay. Staying meant a slow death then, better life as a prisoner than death to Umbria and all she held dear.
~**~
One Year Earlier, In the Kingdom of Umbria
~**~
Melody paced back and forth in front of her father’s study. The servants were already spreading the story, and the king had wasted no time in calling for her. Melody never pushed the boundaries growing up. She had always done her duty but things were different now.
Melody got older and her father looked at her in a new way. He saw her as if he expected her to wear different clothes, speak witty words, do her hair, became a different person. Melody knew what he was thinking, and she did not like it. So, one thing leads to another, and she had lost her patience. Now, her father wanted to talk with her. He would tell her to act her age and to stop walking around dancing and singing. She knew what he would say, but she still dreaded hearing it.
Finally, the king called her in. Melody could feel her knees shaking. She had this conversation before. She knew all the words he would say and could feel the heat from his anger already. “I’m sorry to have to do this, Melody.”
Those were not the words that Melody expected. They were not the words that her father usually spoke. This was not the beginning…
“This was not how your mother and I planned. We wanted something better for you but there are situations that can’t be planned for. The prince of Sirle has made a handsome offer for your hand. Your children will be kings and our kingdoms will be at peace.”
“What are you talking about?” Melody couldn’t help but ask.
“Your future. I wish I had something better to offer you but this is all I can give.”
“A loveless marriage? That is hardly a gift!”
“I know that it is not ideal but it will bring peace to our kingdom. Umbria cannot survive another war with the north.”
Melody’s breath caught. “Will it come to war?”
“Sirle has always coveted our resources. The old king would take a chance if he had one. The king will not wait forever but this marriage will cement our treaty with Sirle for generations.”
Melody was surprised to feel tears stream down her face. “I don’t really have a choice? Do I?”
“This is the only way to make peace.”
The tears continued to roll down her face. She could not speak. The words just left her mind before they could reach her lips.
“There is a way for you to save your kingdom without marrying a stranger.”
The voice that spoke was quiet but firm. Melody felt an urgent need to find the source of the voice. She found it in a very still form, watching them both as if she were luring a wary animal with her stillness and her calm.
“What is this way?”
“It comes with a price,” the woman warned.
The king was standing now. “Who are you? Who let you in my house? In my study?”
“I am the Bard of Sron. All magic comes from Sron and magic leads to many solutions.”
“What solution?” Melody asked again.
“There is a tower on the western edge of the kingdom, near the border of Sron. This tower is no simple building. It is magic and it will protect your life and the life of your kingdom. No one, not even Glavinore and Sirle combined, will be able to take advantage of Umbria. The tower’s magic will stop all attacks. You and your parents and your people will be safe from enemies. You will be safe from princes within the tower. No one will force you to marry while you stay there.”
“That’s perfect!” Melody almost sang.
“What aren’t you telling us?” The king demanded of the bard. “What is the price of using this tower and its magic?”
“Once your daughter enters the tower, she can never leave.”
The king’s face paled. “We shall never see her again?”
“No enemy will ever bother you,” the bard reminded him.
“I will not lose my daughter just to keep a few acres of useless land!”
“This is my decision!” Melody almost yelled. “Umbria is small and needs protection.”
“A marriage would provide protection!”
“A marriage without love will lead to nothing but sadness. The tower will lead to protection.”
“The tower will lead to loneliness,” the king warned. “Please think before making your decision.”
“I don’t need to think. I will not marry without love.”
“The tower will protect your kingdom without forcing a marriage,” the bard said with a smile. “It is the only option left to you. My silver peacock will show you the way.”
For three days and nights, Melody followed the silver peacock. She did not notice when the land grew rocky and hot. She did not notice when she made her way to the border of a stone forest.
There, in a heart of the stone forest, rose a tower. Melody walked into the tower and watched the world go by. She did not leave the tower until a year went by and Syon Med went looking for a tower of his own…
~**~
In the Kingdom of Glavinore
~**~
An old woman in the new queen of Gavinore’s retinue caught the eye of Syon Med as he stood in welcome with the knights of Glavinore. Eager for a glimpse of the woman from Sron who would be the queen, he found his attention snared by the crone. Her dark eyes held his gaze as if, he thought, she recognized him. But he knew Sron only as a nebulous, mysterious land along the eastern coast.
It had been conquered, a century before, by the restless armies of Glavinore, who had made the country their own. Music came out of Sron, and rumors of magic, and the odd warrior seeking a place in Glavinore, with a cloak of sheepskin and a name older than time. The old woman loosed Syon’s eyes when the trumpets blew. Syon searched through the confusion; the Lady from Sron had apparently added herself to it.
The knights around Syon had not been so distracted.
“Is she beautiful?” one demanded.
“She has a face like an eel.”
“She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
“She’s too tall and too pale.”
“The king looks like a bear so they suit each other.”
“Which is she?” Syon asked, wondering what he had missed, and how.
“You didn’t see her, Syon?” A hand pointed. “Look there. The tall one next to the king. It’s a marriage made of money.”
“There is no money in Sron,” he argued, finding no woman with the king.
“Then it is a matter of peace.”
Syon tried to think of peace but peace is rarely a thing for knights. He tried to think of the queen but he had no face to form in his head. A shadow fell on him but he hardly felt it in his turning thoughts. The shadow lifted over Sron; there was a soft laugh behind them. Syon brought his attention back to the yard.
“I still haven’t seen her.”
“There! On the steps.”
Syon looked but still missed her. The company of knights surcoats was bright and drew the eye with the symbols of family and rank: birds and animals, suns and shooting stars, pyramids, and lightning bolts and the phases of the moon. Each symbol was ancient, but beyond honor and a name, few possessed a title.
Most, like Syon, had been brought to court when they were twelve to be raised and trained with the young prince. Syon grew up knowing that each motion made him one of many but he was cast out of the pack abruptly when he saved the newly crowned Regus’s life during a border brawl with Ysig Island in the north. A tall, wirey man, he carried his strength lightly; most recognized it too late. His hair, long and black, he kept neatly tied at his neck. His eyes hardly ever lost their calm.
He walked with the knights across the yard but he fell behind, laden with heavy thoughts. The party guests had all gone into the main hall. Syon could hear harping, singing and beating drums clearly. He tried to pick out Kaira’s voice, but it was lost in the harmony. The music was hypnotizing and rhythmic. He thought about going in but he knew she would come if he waited.
Kaira came to him as he hoped.
“You look thoughtful,” she said. “What are you thinking?”
He looked down into her smile. She had skin as white as peeled almonds, hair as dark as the winter night. She wore the green gown that highlighted the periwinkle blue of her eyes. Her voice was deep and smoky. At night her song seemed warmer than the fire. He wanted to touch her, but he remembered where they were.
“I was looking for the king’s bride,” he answered. “Tell me: is the queen beautiful?”
“You haven’t seen her?”
“I was distracted.”
Her smile widened, amused. “By what? Another woman?”
“Yes.”
“Was she beautiful?”
“I have no idea but her hair looks like cobwebs. Her eyes caught mine and I couldn’t look away.”
“And in that moment she bewitched you, and you missed the Lady from Sron entirely.”
“I thought I knew her. She looked at me as if we were old friends.”
“Perhaps she only wanted to be.” Her eyes fell away from him then; her smile dropped.
Familiar with her expressions, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
Her shoulders moved with her tension before she answered, “My father is here for the wedding.”
Again his hand stopped before filling itself with her soft, cloudy hair. He wanted to Measure her eyelashes against his thumb. “I’m sorry,” he breathed.
“So am I.” She folded her arms, looked at him again, but without seeing him. “I don’t like what I think he is thinking. He complains about the time I spend here; he complains about what I wear, about my hair.”
“Your hair?”
“As if he looks at me and sees someone else. Someone who dresses better and speaks with charm, who might bring him gold and land.” He felt the blood leave his face; he linked his fingers behind his back, leaned against the tree so that he would not reach out to her with eacher hand. She was seeing him now while worry furrowed her brow. “I think he has someone in mind.”
“Who?”
“I don’t know yet. I do know that he will not ask me, he will tell me after he has promised me to whoever has enough to buy me.”
“I will talk to him,” Syon promised, wondering where, in a day, he could gain the world. He would do anything to persuade her father. “I’ll talk to the king.” His hands clenched behind his back; he whispered as she turned, “I love you, my Lady Greenwood. And I would let you sing.”
~**~
He saw the Lady from Sron then, entering the hall. She was quite tall. The braided coils of her hair were as white as gold could be and still be yellow. The long, graceful slope of her profile might be fishlike, Syon saw, but it seemed only to adjust the boundaries of beauty so that the world became small without her.
Trumpets blew with a flourish. The queen smiled over her new court and looked pleased with the welcome. Regus spoke booming words in the hall. Three days of feasting, he declared. There would be food and festivals and contests with cups of gold to be awarded. For three days, all challenges, quarrels, and judgments were not to be addressed. This was a time for celebration!
Syon could see the joy and love in the king’s eyes. He loved with the woman from Sron. Could his love make him look more kindly on the love of others? The king would be generous. Regus knew the value of love now and he would place it at a higher value than land or gold.
The wedding would take place the next day and the feast would begin now. Syon tried to move closer to the king, wanting to talk with him before the feast got full into swing. He almost ran into a woman when a hand grabbed his arm. It belonged to the cobweb haired woman.
“Keep your eye on her,” said the bard. “Watch the queen dance.” The urgency of the words struck him like a rock.
The woman was older than Syon had guessed but she stood with a straight back and clear eyes. She wore a long, scarlet robe and carried a harp so gray that it looked like it was made of bone. Her hands looked nothing like a graceful musician’s. They looked like farmer’s hands, strong and solid. She wore one glittering silver ring on the longest finger on her left hand. Again her eyes held him, black as new moons and as secret.
“Watch?” he repeated, mystified.
“Watch the queen when she dances. She forgets herself when I play. You have ancient eyes and you will see the change.”
The music and the chatter grew distant. Something glided over him: the chilly intimation of trouble. “See what?”
“What she is. You’ll see it in the six fingers on her hand and in her distorted shadow. That is not Gwindolyn of Sron. There is a woman trapped in a tower in Sron, who cannot free herself for fear of death. Will you find her, Syon Med? Will you free her, for the sake of those who love and need her?”
He swallowed the sudden dryness. “The king’s true bride is imprisoned in a tower in Sron?”
“You saved your king’s life once before. Will you help him now?”
“But how do I,” Syon had to start again. “How do you know these things?”
“Watch the lady. She will show you herself what she is.”
“Who are you?” His voice was hoarse. He could only whisper.
“I am the Bard of Sron.” Her ancient eyes looked still and measureless as a sea of water. “I was trained to see what exists and to name it. The thing that calls itself Queen of Glavinore cannot hide from me. But I can do nothing; your king would never believe me if I were to reveal the lie. In Sron, I could change things with a word but this is not my home. It is yours. You see with your heart, Syon Med. You recognized me.”
“I don’t know you,” he whispered.
“You saw me instead of that false queen. You recognized what is true. We need you.” The dark in her eyes trembled slightly, well water disturbed by the first drop of rain. “All of us in Sron. And all in Glavinore. Your seeing eyes. Help us.”
It was the second longest night of Syon’s life.
The lady did not dance. She moved to Regus’s court after the feast, learning names and faces. Her eyes, always smiling, quickened when she met Syon.
“The king has spoken of you, my lord,” she said as he bent stiffly over her hand, counting fingers. “Of your courage, and great skill, and of your very long friendship. I suspect that your three towers have their origins in my country. You must come visit the land some time.”
He murmured something and cast a glance at her shadow as she withdrew her hand. Five fingers, her shadow said. The only magic he could see lay in her whit.
Later, he sat in the king’s chamber with Regus and a dozen of his most trusted knights. Regus, flushed with wine and happiness, assured them that he had found the perfect, the most beautiful, the wisest in the land. The woman was a treasure even though her father was an eccentric, absentminded old nodder, climbing towers and searching for dreams. Syon, with three women on his mind, drank little and said nothing. She did not dance, his perturbed thoughts ran in circles I saw nothing. I cannot accuse her of anything. The bard is mistaken. Or else the lady is a lie. But if that is true, and I am forced to tell Regus that all he loves is a lie, then all love will become a lie to him, and even my love will be worthless to him.
Late at night, out of a mist of wine and goodwill, Regus fixed him with a probing eye. “Syon. You aren’t smiling but everyone else is. Don’t you like her?”
Syon opened his mouth; nothing came out. Smiles grew thin around him, curious. He rubbed his eyes, evading the king’s, and found words finally. “I’m as bewitched as everyone else. Too bewitched to speak.”
The king threw an arm around his shoulders. “You should marry. All good men should marry!” He poured more wine into Syon’s cup. “Drink with me. To Sron and all the magic that has come out of it.”
Syon choked on his wine. Someone else raised his cup to the king’s happiness, and Syon could swallow.
The bard’s eyes caught at Syon once, above the gray harp. Why they demanded, haven’t you left? He heard Kaira’s voice then, raised alone, sweet and pure, singing verses to the harping. Her voice soared toward the circling doves. The king and queen kissed. Trumpets sounded; bells pealed in answer, passing the message across the realm. Still, he picked out Kaira’s voice, like a thread of gold in a tapestry, fine and bright, yet fading into the growing tumult until he lost the thread. Only the memory existed in his heart.
He had little chance, that day or the next, to speak to Kaira. She seemed always hurrying somewhere with her father, or in her green gown about to sing. The Bard of Sron was always elsewhere when he found a scant moment free to question her. Constantly at Regus’s side, among an escort of knights, he watched the queen as she rode with her new husband. His head bent; he watched her shadow move starkly against the grass. Again, it told him nothing.
Kaira, passing him on the field afterward, said, “You are always looking at her. Are you in love with her, now?”
“No,” he answered, horrified. “I love you.”
She said nothing; her eyes remained perplexed. She seemed weighed down by satin; her hair was drawn away from her face and captured in a gold net. It looked grab compared to the silky way it looked when it fell loose across her shoulders. Syon wanted to touch it but he held himself back.
“Kaira,” her father called from behind Syon. He turned to meet a gaze that was harder than a slap. “My lord Syon Med,” he added with courtesy. “The king is fortunate in your courage, and in your friendship. But prowess passes, in the end, and when you’re aging, as I am, it’s important to have more tangible possessions. Come, Kaira.”
“My lord,” Syon said, understanding the final word on the unspoken subject.
“My lord,” a page interrupted. “The king asks for your presence in his escort.”
“Come, Kaira.”
The Queen of Glavinore sent for him then. He came to her room at her summons. She busied herself with sewing by the window and said at his step, “Close the door.”
He did as she asked. He caught a glimpse of her eyes, small, dark and deep like something dangerous staring out of a cleft of stone. He backed against the door, his heart pounding, knowing then that she had watched him in the night, and every hour since then: the dark, unsmiling figure in every corner.
“My lord Syon Med,” she said briskly, while her shadow crawled like a living thing toward him, “you are disturbing your friend the king. You are disturbing me. I am the Queen of Glavinore; you are his faithful knight who has never failed in any test of honor. Until now. You cannot fight me and win. You cannot tell Regus what you see. What would he say?” She held out her six-fingered hands; their shadows splayed across the wall on either side of him. “There are no words to tell him this!” She looked at him again out of the inhuman eyes. He felt the shadows of her hands grip his arms, and he closed his eyes, trembling, his face drained of the warm morning light.
“What are you?” he whispered.
“Look at me, brave knight. Open your eyes. This is truly what I am.” He looked. She laughed with the sound as light as water flowing over pebbles. “I am Gwindolyn of Sron, Regus Arram’s wife. I will be the mother of his heirs.”
He had to find breath before he could find words. “I will fight you,” he promised, feeling the icy touch of her shadow seeping like night along the horrizon.
“You cannot. What will you tell Regus? That I have six fingers? He will think you have lost your mind. I mean no harm so there is no reason for us not to be friends.”
“You are a lie! You’re not even human! Where is the true Lady of Sron?”
“Her.” She smiled again. “In a tower somewhere in Sron. If she leaves it, she will die.She cannot even look at the world without dying. I gave her a mirror in which to watch the world go by, and some threads to busy her hands. If she prefers, she can watch herself stay young forever in the mirror. So you see, you cannot rescue her. You will only kill her.”
“I will find her,” he said and saw her eyes grow bleak. There is a way, he realized then. She fears it. Her gaze bored into him; he closed his eyes again and saw them, small and dark and merciless, behind his eyelids. He could not even escape her in this thoughts. Her eyes followed him there.
He swallowed a cry of terror at the sorcery, pushing hard against the door to keep himself upright. She only laughed. “The king loves you, your place is here, and I mean only to give Regus what he wants. You and I want the same thing. Forget the Lady of Sron. She has her mirror and her life. Both will continue to belong to her as long as she stays where she is.”
He turned without answering, his hands rattling at the door latch until they remembered how to open it. He left Glavinore then, filling a bag with anything within reach.
He rode out of Glavinore alone, only dragging once at the golden gelding, as a thorn snagged the reins. He allowed himself one last look at the palace.
He whispered, “Kaira,” and stepped into the forests.
~Two~
~**~
In the Kingdom of Sirle
~**~
The hunting party of gamesmen, guards, servants, standard-bearers and a trumpeter, seemed extreme for such a short expedition. The company seemed to grow smaller as quiet closed in while they made their way deeper into the forests. Prince Ian of Sirle followed the beating steps of the stag until he broke away from the hunting party to find himself alone and face-to-face with a legend. The young prince felt the same stillness fall in his own heart. With legend in front of him, he had little else to fear.
An ageless bard stood before him in all her grandeur. As in all the tales of her, there was a bone pipe in her pocket and green circular lenses over her eyes. She has strong, calloused hands that played sweetly on the bone harp in her lap. There, behind her, stood the tower made of bones, some recent and still bleeding marrow, others of unknowable age and unknowable origin. A single circular window, its pane as green as her lenses, seemed to stare at Ian like an eye among the bones. The glass swung open. Never, all the tales warned, never go into the tower. You will be lost because no one but the bard could find a way out.
Who, he wondered incredulously, could be tricked into entering a stinking pile of bones?
She smiled at him, showing teeth, yellowed with age and pointed like an animals. Her face was said to be so lovely that it broke human hearts but at that moment it looked ancient and clever and smug. It looked animalistic and homely.
“Prince Ian.” Her voice was as hollow as windblown reeds.
“Bard, ” he whispered, fear taking the strength from his voice.
“You killed my white peacock.”
“I am very sorry.”
“My favorite pet.”
“I wasn’t watching for peacocks in this part of the forest. What can I do to make it up to you?”
“Bring the white peacock into my tower,” she answered, “and pluck it for me. I will boil it in a pot for supper, and you will drink a cup of broth with me around my fire.”
He swallowed. “Never! Never go in the tower,” the tales said. Those strong pointed teeth had sucked bones the tales said. “I will answer your request,” he said carefully, “but I cannot do that.”
Her eyes seemed to grow larger than the lenses, and disturbingly dark. “You will not pluck my bird?”
“I will answer your request but I cannot do that.”
“You will not come into my tower to drink a cup of broth with me?”
“I will answer your request, but I cannot do that,” he repeated, for the third time was the charm.
She raised her lenses and looked at him with naked eyes. In that moment, her face seemed to change before his eyes. Her face became someone else’s.
Ian moved to run, but he only fell to his knees. Ian’s horse disappeared into thin air. It became lost with his party deep in the forest. He could not leave and there was no one to help him here. Ian was stuck with the bard and what passed as her mercy.
“Then,” she said softly, “you will never find what you desire until you find my bone tower. You will leave your father’s palace but you will not find it again until you find your way back to me.”
She dropped the lenses back on her nose, scooped the bloody mess of feather and bone into her arms, and walked into her tower. The glass slammed shut even without a door to rattle the frame.
The tower levitated suddenly. Ian saw the bard concentrate her power into one strum of her harp. Motionless, mesmerized, he watched the tower of bone until there was nothing but shadow.
“My lord,” someone said tremulously. He looked around to find his entourage with him. The Bard had led them to him, Ian guessed. She had only distraction them with visions of stags and the drumming of hooves. White and sickened by the loathsome thoughts, Ian slumped toward servants and guards who were now beside him; they had already dismounted to come to him, asking questions with their eyes and their silence, but Ian had no answer for them. The bard had already reached into Ian and held his heart. He could not stop thinking over the woman who had, for an instant, reached into the prince and held his heart like fruit.
He brushed the thoughts away like the feather on his knee and managed to turn the party toward the palace.
The prince was a tall, young man with watchful blue eyes and long coppery hair. He had gone impulsively to hunt. Ian could think of nothing like responsibility or duty. He could only think of leaving the palace for an hour or a day. The company had met the king’s messenger half-way across Sirle. The message was accompanied by a troop of guards to make sure that Ian did not ignore it. Come home, it said tersely. Now. Ian was not surprised, and he was too weary to fend for himself. So he let fortune, in the shape of the king’s guards, bring him back.
Fortune, appearing suddenly in a different form, in the Bard, baffled him. He tried to remember childhood tales. There was one that said that she could never lie but surely she could be mistaken? Did her words come true? Or were they only true as long as the bard remembered them? Would she take the peacock into her tower and forget about it and him? His mother would know. Ian had always been close with his mother but their relationship had changed as got older. He sympathized with her. Who would want to bear the children of a man as angry as his father?
He pushed the terrible memories from his mind and found again the Eldest of all Bards staring at him behind her green lenses. The idea that she might have been waiting there for him was disturbing. Long ago, tales said, some lovelorn maiden had drowned it with her tears and then cursed it barren as her heart. With some effort, he pushed aside the bard on the waste, too. If he reasoned, he was to get lost after leaving his father’s palace at the end of the day, then once he got home, he would simply not leave.
There was not much day left when the trees thinned and the pillars of the palace appeared. Part fortress, it seemed carved out of the clefts themselves. Ribbons of water on both sides caught the light of the setting sun. The water looked more like fire as it poured down steep walls of granite. The riders quickened their pace knowing home was close. Even Ian, who had no doubt that his father was furious with him, breathed more easily when the cliff-face fell into sight.
An hour later, he was home.
The king did not waste time sending for him. In his chamber, Ian splashed water over his dusty face and stood dripping while a servant unbuttoned his tunic and drew an overcoat over his shoulders. The door flew open suddenly. The King of Sirle said, “Get out.” Ian’s servants abandoned him hastily. His father swung a hard hand and slammed the heavy door shut behind them; turning, still swinging, he slapped Ian. The prince, surprised, stumbled against the washstand. The basin fell to the floor and spilled water over his shoes. The king waited until the basin was still until the only sounds in the room were the endless thunder of water over the sheer cliff, and Ian’s quickened breathing.
Then the king said, “She will be here in three days. Her messengers arrived this morning.”
Ian touched his bruised mouth with the back of his hand. “Who?” he asked in a mystified voice.
“The woman you will marry.”
Ian stared at him. He and his father were much alike in their height and strong build though the king stood nearly a head taller. Ian had also inherited his coppery hair. Half his face was covered with a scar from a battle long ago. The battle had taken an eye. But it was the puckered, empty skin where his eye used to be was more chilling an even the coldest stare. Ian had decided long ago that his father must have a hidden eye there; an eye that could see into secrets and invisible worlds. His visible eye was black and mysterious.
The king had learned to use the battle to make his kingdom stronger and now he was learning magic too. Occasionally, the king would test his skill and conjure an explosion out of the air and fling it at Ian. This time the explosion was silent, and Ian, dazed, thought he must be dreaming. He felt the shock of it finally all through his body as something poked is heart.
“Marry.” He was shaking suddenly with rage, with pain, with fear. “I can’t marry.”
“You will marry.” His father’s voice had a powerful resonance, and it forced words into Ian like an ax into wood. “In four days. The youngest daughter of the King of Umbria will be coming here?”
“I will not marry!” The force of the shout startled even Ian; he did not recognize his own voice.
“How dare you?” The king’s voice only matched the force of Ian’s shout. The king was dangerously close to Ian’s face. So close that the puckered eye seemed to gaze into Ian’s thoughts. Ian knew that we should blink but he was too mad to do much of anything. The king did not touch him, but his voice roared over Ian. The prince felt like he was a tree in the middle of a strong storm; the next gust of wind may just blow him away. “How dare you claim anything as your own? Your life is mine. I made you; you belong to me and to Sirle.” He moved abruptly again, crossing the room to fling the window wide.
Ian had chosen the chamber, in a tower flanking one of the foremost corners of the outer wall, because he loved the sound of the water. His father’s words seemed to bellow at him out of the surging water. “I will call up your drowned ghost and curse it every hour if you leave me with no one to inherit my kingdom. The princess from Umbria will be here in three days; you will marry in four. It has all been arranged long ago. Her name is Melody. Love her or hate her, you will give me heirs.”
“My love or hate does not matter. The lady will not marry me without love.”
The king scoffed. “Umbria is tiny, nothing. It would be lost in a fraction of Sirle. But it is wealthy, and its kings have been known for their sorcery. Your children will inherit the vastness of Sirle and the powers of Umbria. My army will be unstoppable. ” He reached out, in another swift, unpredictable move, and closed the casement; the wild, urgent voice of the water receded. “Get dressed. You will not spend another night listening to this alone. You will be under guard until your wedding.”
He came very close to Ian again, laid a hand on his shoulder. What might have seemed a gesture of reconciliation weighed like stone on Ian’s shoulder. The king was not trying to provide comfort to his son, he simply wanted Ian to look into the king’s dead eye. The king knew a little magic and each bit of power was held in the king’s former eye. The eye socket would look into Ian and his will would no longer be his own. Ian tried to look over his father’s shoulder and even tried closing his eyes but his father always won in the end. Ian yielded finally, losing a cry of despair as he fell to his knees. Ian’s head bowed to hide tears of fury and humiliation. He heard his father cross the room and stop in the doorway.
Someone spoke a word or two. Ian raised his head slightly, recognizing the soft, mourning dove voice. The door closed again; his mother, Orphelia, crossed the room quickly, stopping in front of Ian.
He felt her hands frame his face, coax him gently until he finally lifted his head. The eyes staring back at her looked defeated. He saw the stark hope in her eyes and knew that she would not understand. He did not bother trying to explain.
He began, clumsily, to push buttons into loops down the front of his tunic. His hands shook. The queen drew them into hers, kissed them as though he were still a child.
“Let me,” she said, eyeing the haphazard hang of hem. “You started wrong.”
He watched the braids of chestnut crowning her head drop lower, button by button. The ghost of her fine, delicate beauty still haunted her: the memory of what she had been before she realized what, in marrying the king of Sirle, she would be forced to become. Ian had forgotten her laugh, but he remembered her outrage and cries of pain more easily. In his early years, after his father had driven them both to tears, she would hold him in her arms and tell him stories.
He remembered that now. She turned her face briefly, to look at him, working at the last of the buttons. He whispered numbly, “He wants me to marry.”
“I know.”
Still, his voice would not sound. “He can’t see. He can’t see another option. ”
“No.” Her gaze met his, gray and still like an autumn sky. “He can’t see.” She touched his face again. “I meant to talk to you first.”
“I wish I had known,” he said more clearly, “what I would be coming back to.” He glanced around at the tower walls, searching blindly for some way out, some way around; he could find none. “I have to give the bard her due; she does know what she’s doing.”
“What?”
“The Eldest Bard. I met her in the forest this morning. You used to tell me tales of her; that’s how I recognized her.”
The queen raised a slender hand, pushed her hand to her mouth. The mingling of fear and wonder in her eyes startled Ian. She whispered, “You met her?”
“I ran down her peacock. Does she really see the future?”
“Her white peacock?”
He blinked. “Yes. Why? Does it matter?”
The door opened again; the captain of the guards stood on the threshold. He said, bowing low to the queen, “Your pardon, my lady. The king commands your presence in his chambers.”
Her mouth tightened, but she turned to Ian. “I will ask him,” she murmured, “if we can talk privately later.” The guard stepped aside for the queen but he did not leave the doorway. He caught Ian’s attention there with his silent, stubborn waiting.
Ian sighed. “A moment.”
A moment for what? the man’s eyes asked. The door stayed open. Ian’s attendants scattered quietly through the room, began to carry his belongings away.
The servants seemed startled when Ian wandered to the windows. The air in the chamber stirred but Ian only stared out the window. He knew that there was no escape from his fate. Across the grey-white water, within the trees blurred together beyond his vision a ribbon of crimson spiraled within the green. The ribbon was moving closer. He saw it clearly then: a bird made of fire, its body was nothing but fire surrounded by fire. The bird flew drifting plumes of fire down so long they nearly touched the water.
He swallowed, stunned. It was, he thought, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life. The amber eyes of the bird could see into his soul.
Ian moved towards it without thinking. He left by the door, not out the window which caused the guard leaning against the walls, waiting for him, to follow at his own pace. He spiraled down the tower stairs, glancing out at every narrow window for a glimpse of the bird. The bird seemed to stay in the corner of his eye while it dove back and forth in the trees. The guard did not appear to see the magical bird. Ian only looked back at the guard once. After that, all his attention was on the bird.
He stopped dead, heard the pebbles settle under his boot and knew that no boots were following him. The guards were no longer with him. Ian knew that if he followed the bird, he would eventually see the bone-white tower of the bard.
~Three~
~**~
The Island of Ysig
~**~
Broken towers formed a crescent on the small Island of Ysig. Thurrin Ysig stood at the top of the tallest tower and rubbed the flaking stone of the windowsill and stared south towards the sea. Ysig was a nation once, but it paid tribute to Gavinore now. The war had forced them all to pay dearly.
Thurrin had been very young when it all started. He had watched with unsmiling eyes as Regus Arram paraded through the streets with his knights in fine silk and glittering mail. They meant to measure Glavinore’s strength. Glavinore’s men looked like knights while the men of Ysig looked like farmers and fishers with the smell of the sea burned into their skin and one coin among them to flip for their fortunes.
The whole island had lost their fortunes on that one toss of the coin. The battle had been lost and Ysig was Regus Arram’s in all but name. The war was brief and bloody. Regus himself had nearly lost his life. Thurrin had lost all his uncles and cousins who were barely old enough to fight. His father had been wounded. His body had healed but his mind had wandered away and never returned.
With wind cutting his face and ancient, unmortared stone, Thurrin Ysig could do nothing but think. His father muttered at him and blew on a bowl of water, waiting for magic to come. He waited for a weapon that would let him settle Regus Arram. Thurrin’s father could not always remember Thurrin’s name, but he never forgot Regus Arram’s face. Magic and vengeance were twin obsessions now. Thurrin watched his father and thought dispassionately: I am descended from kings.
“Ronan,” the old king called. “Come look at this.”
“I am not Ronan,” Thurrin said in a leashed voice. “I am Thurrin.”
Thurrin joined his father anyway, knowing that the man would soon forget the correction. His mind often wandered through time. He tended to skip the things that had happened long ago.
“What is it you want me to see?”
The old man pointed to a picture in an old, moth-eaten book. It showed a face-less knight fighting a dragon. The former king should have been spry; he should still be beating Thurrin in the practice yard. Instead, Ysig’s former king sat in an abandoned tower talking to ghosts.
“You what me to lose my life fighting a dragon?” Thurrin tried to joke.
“Slay. It says here you have to slay the dragon.”
“Who would remember that you are in this tower if I die slaying your dragon? Who would sent food up to you and help you into your bed at night?”
“The other man,” the king paused, trying to remember a name, “Ferle takes me up sometimes too. Ferle should help you slay the dragon. He knows the name of all the weather. Ferle made a storm on a cloudless day.”
“Craten takes you to bed when I’m busy. He cannot call the weather like Ferle used to.”
“I taught him magic myself,” the king argued. “I taught you the sword. You were the best fighter on the island.”
“I still am.”
The king seemed surprised that Thurrin thought he was still alive.
“You’ll make a fine king, Thurrin Ysig.”
Thurrin was strangely touched to hear the king use his name. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Thurrin watched his father, looking for the strong, unyielding expression that had once lit the island king’s face. His father did not meet his eyes. The king’s eyes stayed on the book in his hands. Thurrin looked down at it.
Thurrin saw the tower on the page. There is no door, Thurrin thought, gazing numbly down at the drawing. There is no door in the tower. No way in. No way out. There was no hope left for Ysig Island; at least no hope in dragons.
Thurrin sighed. “I’ll get to work on the sheep. I’ll send Craten to put you to bed later.”
“Craten is a good lad, but he has a hard time putting me to bed.”
“His leg has been giving him trouble again.”
“Did you get too rough chasing him?” Thurrin tried not to wimps. Craten had hurt his leg in the battle with Regus Arram all those years ago. The lad was supposed to stay with the boats but he could not ignore the screaming voices calling for help. Craten ran into the battle but he had to crawl out. His leg had never worked properly after that day.
“I’ll finish early with the sheep and help him.”
“Don’t worry about sheep. You need to slay the dragon.”
“I’ll take care of Ysig and I’ll leave the dragon to you.”
The king shook his head sadly. “I taught you better than this, Ronan. You can call the storms with a word!”
“I am Thurrin, father and I cannot call storms or slay dragons but I will do everything I can to save the people of Ysig Island.”
“You’re a good lad.”
Thurrin left his father and made his way down the tower and into the sun. Craten sat on a pile of crumbling bricks from the tower. He had an easy smile and a carefree attitude. His bad leg did not sour his attitude.
“How is our father?”
“Maundering. He thought I was Ronan again.”
“Which Ronan? His brother or his grandfather?”
“I don’t know. He talked about slaying dragons and calling weather.”
“It’s said that our grandfather’s grandfather could make a thing appear just by saying it. He could call a cloud rain and it would rain. He could call a hill a dragon and it would become a dragon.”
“You read too much, Craten.”
“You don’t read enough.”
“I delegate that task to you.”
“Now you sound lazy.” The words would have been bitter or angry from another man but Craten’s easy smile made the words more joking banter than anything else. “You’d delegate every task if you could.”
“I trust you with my most important tasks.”
“Well, I can’t argue with trust,” Craten laughed.
“I can’t argue with you,” Thurrin laughed back. His brother’s laugh had that effect on Thurrin. He forgot how to laugh until he heard Craten laugh. Craten could always laugh.
“Darla found more than fish in the ocean today. You’ll never guess what she found.”
“You’d better tell me,” Thurrin agreed.
“She fished a bard out of the ocean. She had a harp and everything!”
Thurrin looked at his brother in shock. “She just found a woman in the middle of an ocean?”
“You’ll have to ask her to hear the whole story. No one has told it to me.”
“Send her up to our father after dinner.”
“Are you going in to meet her?”
Thurrin shook his head. He could not stand the idea of listening to the whole house chew. “I need to take a walk.”
“What’s wrong?”
“You’d think I’d stop wanting my father to remember my name.”
“I’d give my other leg for that and I’d give my life to have Regus Arram confused in a tower instead of our father.”
“Never say that! Don’t even think it!”
“It’s still true,” Craten argued.
“Ysig could not survive without you! I might be its sword but you are the island’s heart. We would be dead and aimless without you.”
“Don’t go chasing dragons or armies without me.”
“Father showed you that picture too?”
“The woman from the sea spoke of it. She said that you would recognize her if you saw her.”
“Show her to me,” Thurrin almost begged.
Craten pointed but Thurrin could only see her back. She had hair that was almost bone white and a dark, dirty gown. The woman looked like any farmer’s wife but the harp she held looked like something that belonged in another world. It looked like ivory that was covered in intricate designs.
“I’ve never seen a woman like her,” Thurrin told his brother with disappointment.
Thurrin may not have recognized the woman, but he recognized her harping after one stroke of fingers to strings. The song awoke something deep in his soul. He had heard the song before; it had been played by this woman and this harp. Thurrin may not be able to remember the woman’s face but he could never forget that harp.
“Where do you think she got that harp?” Craten whispered. “What’s it made out of?”
“I know that harp. I’ve heard it play. I just don’t remember where. We need to talk to that bard.”
Craten nodded his agreement. “I’ll ask her to play for father. You can talk to her while you lead her up the tower steps.”
“There is a secret in this. Write to Hexel.”
“Hexel doesn’t listen to me.”
“She will this time. I’ll tell her about the bard and the gap in my memory. You know she’ll read the note without thinking and then she won’t be able to resist a puzzle.”
“Hexel will never get here in time.”
“She can be quick when she wants to be.”
“She can’t bend time and space. There’s not enough time to get here before that bard leaves.”
“Maybe the bard won’t be leaving.”
“You can’t really expect to hold her prisoner. Regus Arram really would be on us if we tried something so bold.”
“We don’t need to force her,” Thurrin argued. “We just need to give her a reason to stay.”
“What reason could she have to stay on an island full of rocks and sheep?”
“The same reason she has for coming here in the first place. Just play along and she’ll stay.”
“You could just ask me to stay,” the bard said as she stepped up to Thurrin. “I do not mind doing you a favor if you will do a small thing for me in return.”
“What do you need?” Thurrin did not bother trying to hide the fear in his voice. She was standing on the far side of the room, not two heart-beats ago… What could move so quickly?
“Give me Craten. There is magic in him and he needs to be taught.”
“No.”
“He will have to learn one way or another. It might as well be from me.”
“No.” Thurrin’s fists shook as he spoke. His voice would have quivered if the words were not snapped out.
“You want some stranger to teach him?”
“Craten deserves a choice.”
“A choice of what? Who else could teach him?”
“Hexel.”
“Hexel is no teacher. She’ll get distracted by the first interesting bug she sees!”
Craten broke into the conversation then. “My father could teach me.”
“Your father is not the man he used to be,” the bard argued.
“Who knows about our father?” Thurrin asked.
Craten defended his father with a clipped, “Father can be deceptively focused when it comes to magic,” on top of Thurrin’s question.
“Your father’s condition is well-known. His mind will continue to wonder and his focus will drift. You cannot continue to rely on him.”
“No one knows as much as they think but a wise man is never afraid to ask for help. My father may be the wisest man in the world because he is never afraid to look for solutions in others,” Craten tried to explain.
“That is a politician’s answer. I will teach you to meddle in the affairs of kings. Everyone listens to a wizard,” the bard argued.
“I will not be a wizard. I may be able to use magic but I will never be a wizard!”
“Wizards are not evil. There is no need for fear.”
Thurrin had had enough. He interrupted the conversation then by saying, “Craten already gave you his answer.”
“I will not leave without Craten,” the bard promised. Her promise sounded more like a threat.
“Then you will stay here forever. He is not going.”
“Craten is a magic-user whether he wants to be or not. He may not have a choice for much longer.”
“I will not let you take him!”
“The choice is not mine either. I will not force your brother to come. The magic will do that on its own.”
Craten seemed genuinely puzzled. “My father will teach me magic. It will not control me!”
“I hope that you’re right but I fear that there is only one way to save your brother,” the bard warned.
“I am not sending my brother with you.”
“There is a goblet with a ruby carved into a five-pointed star. If Craten drinks from it than he will be able to control his magic.”
Thurrin pushed down the hope he was feeling. This could still be a trap. “Where can I find this goblet?”
“There is a tower with a dragon,” the bard began.
“A dragon I need to slay?” Thurrin asked, remembering the earlier conversation with his father.
“There is no need to slay the dragon. You just need to get past it and into the tower. The dragon will not stop you from leaving with the goblet.”
Thurrin took a deep breath, steeling himself before asking, “Where is this tower?”
“On the border of Sron and Glavinore. Take a ship from the island and up the Pellior River. You’ll have to take a horse west from there. You should be able to reach it in three days.”
Thurrin nodded. “I’ll be back in about three days. Watch over our father for me.”
Craten shook his head. “I’m coming with you.”
“You can hardly walk, Craten.”
“I can ride.”
“Your place is here, Craten.”
“You planned this!” Craten shouted, pointing at the bard. “You’re sending him into a trap! Why else would you make him go alone?”
“I will go with him if that would make Thurrin feel more comfortable.”
“I don’t need a court bard slowing me down,” Thurrin snapped.
“Take her with you, Thurrin. She won’t lead you into a trap if she’s with you.”
“You’re jumping at shadows, Craten. Nothing is going to happen to me.”
“Please take her with you,” Craten said as he gazed at his brother with eyes that were full of light and hope. Thurrin could deny his brother nothing when he gave him that look. Craten knew his older brother’s weakness but Craten only took advantage when something was truly important to him. “Please don’t go alone.”
“Pack your bags, bard but make it light. You’ll be carrying your own luggage for most of the trip.”
No could have been more surprised than Thurrin when the bard fell to the floor at his words. She had fainted.
~**~
In the Stone Forests
~**~
Melody was watching her mirror when the knight came to her in the flesh. He came as suddenly as a thunderstorm in summer. The knight did not look the way Melody imagined. The mirror’s images always appeared fuzzilly and left something to Melody’s imagination.
“You are the woman in the tower,” the knight said in a voice of wonder. Melody wanted to answer but the sudden appearance of a reflection was too hard to take in.
He looked like a knight but not quite like the one who had appeared in her mirror a few days earlier. This knight was travel-worn. His dark hair was still tied at the base of his neck but it did not look as glossy. Still, he looked strong enough to carry her over his shoulder. Fatigue had not weakened him.
“A bard told me to come here,” Melody finally said.
“A bard told me the same thing. To come here and rescue a woman trapped in a tower.”
“I’m not trapped in a tower. I can leave if I want.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To protect my home. I could not marry to protect them and this was all I could do.”
“You’d trap yourself in a tower for some farmers? You’d stare at the same four walls for all eternity? That is the most selfless thing I’ve ever heard…”
Melody took a shaky breath at the tone of his words. Maybe he would not carry her over his solder to make her leave.
“Why did the bard send me to your tower if you’re not the princess I need?”
The mirror behind Melody began to shimmer. “It doesn’t usually do that.” An image of the bard appeared on the mirror’s glossy surface.
“I don’t have much time, princess, so listen closely. Thurrin Ysig is coming to claim a tower of his own. Ysig Island will have the power to destroy Umbria. One tower cannot best another.”
“Ysig’s fight is with Glavinore, not Umbria.”
“Conquerors are rarely happy with what they have,” the bard reminded her.
The knight’s face had gone white with fear. “Thurrin Ysig is going to attack Glavinore? What about the queen?”
“Focus on your mission, Syon Med. Your goal is not to stop the queen but to protect the king. Think on the most immediate problem: Stop Thurrin Ysig from destroying your home.”
Melody’s face turned red with anger. “You told me that this tower could protect Umbria!”
“No one could guess that Thurrin Ysig would stumble into a tale. No one knew that the former king of Ysig had a book that would lead him to a tower and a dragon. Now you must find the tower first. Slay the dragon and Thurrin will not be able to use the beast against either Umbria or Glavinore. I am out of time now. Good luck to you both!”
The image in the mirror faded, and the bard was gone, replaced with an image of Syon Med’s horse.
“I saw you in the mirror but I would never have guessed why it showed you to me.”
“That bard is building secrets on secrets!” Syon complained with a fist to his palm.
“The bard of Sron cannot lie. They take a vow for life when they take that harp. They swore on the very bones it’s made out of.”
“I thought the harp was ivory.”
“That would be too innocent for her. The bard of Sron may tell the truth but she only tells the truth that she thinks you need to hear.”
“You think that we need to follow her peacock?”
“I don’t see another option.”
“I do not like being lead around by the nose. Glavinore will unite with Umbria. Thurrin Ysig will not attack both countries.”
“Our armies together might be able to defeat the Islanders but we could never take on a dragon.” Melody thought of something then. “Why were you looking for the first tower? The bard said something about the queen?”
“It is no concern of Umbria. This is a matter of Glavinore.”
“It is a matter for Umbria if we are forming an alliance.”
Syon could see that there was no arguing with her. “I’ll tell you the whole story on the way. We need to get going and the story will take some time.”
“The travel will go faster with a good story,” Melody agreed, climbing out of the tower for the first time in a year. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“The peacock should not have to go far. It seems like all strange things come from the Stone Forests. Do you think that these trees were always stone?”
“The bard told me that the stones were trees once, long ago. Time has turned them to stone.”
“Time is the most powerful thing in the world and it is the one thing that we don’t have right now. You have a horse?”
“It’s in the stable. I exercise her in the courtyard but she has not had a long ride in over a year.”
Syon Med gave her a strange, considering look then like he was seeing something that was more than her but still within her. “It’s about time you left this tower. The questions in you should have pushed you out long ago.”
“It’s the questions that made me stay. This is like a riddle game and I will not play with the live’s of my people as the stakes.”
“Some answers have too high a price,” Syon agreed. “I left the woman I was to marry to come here.”
“She did not ask you to stay?”
“I did not tell her I was leaving.”
It was Melody’s turn to think now, but she was too busy looking at something that was just beyond Syon Med. Finally, she asked, “What is her name?”
“Kaira. She is a Lady of Greenwood.”
“She will wait for you.”
“You’ve never met her. How do you know that she’ll wait?”
“You are true to your word and loyal to your king. The Lady of Greenwood must know that you are loyal to her. Loyalty in anything is hard to find in this world.”
“You talk like the bard,” Syon teased.
“I could never be so mysterious.”
“We’ll see the end of this mysterious quest if we follow the bird. Are you ready?”
Melody nodded. “Lead the way.”
They followed the golden peacock into the next mystery.
~**~
In the Kingdom of Sirle
~**~
Ian had followed the white peacock of fire for days or years, he could not say which for sure. The bones inside of him ached for rest but he could not stop while the bird flew on. His long copper hair was tangled and matted with bracken; there was an otherworldly look in his grey eyes. His clothes were torn; so was the skin on his face and wrists as though he had run through brambles. Oh, how he ached but he could not stop.
It was after midnight before Ian remembered who he was or why he was in these forests. He had run across luminous, barren plains, over empty crystal mountains, down ancient river beds, dry and white as bone, where the pale stones reflecting passing fire ahead of him flushed the color of garnets. The bird sang as it flew. It patterned the black sky and the moon with a star-burst of sounds, each more brilliant, more haunting than the last. It drew farther and farther from Ian, finally no bigger than a shining tear across the face of the moon.
When it had vanished, and he fell, choking on glittering shards of moondust, he heard it sing again with a woman’s voice that should have melted mountains, drawn water out of the harsh landscape. She would not show him her face; the bird would not change while he was watching. He crawled to his feet after a while, and followed her singing, trying to come upon her unexpectedly. But he fell to earth before he saw her. In the forests of Sirle, he leaned against a tree and stared up at the moon, transfixed, waiting for that tear of fire, of blood, to cross its face again. The moon only grew cold, distant, gathering its stars about it, wandering away into some darker realm, leaving the forest black around him. A burning star within the trees brought him to his feet again. But he smelled it before he moved: charred trees bleeding pitch. Human fire, he thought and remembered the princess he was to marry.
The past seemed like a daydream then. Marriage to a princess did not seem half as mad as a curse from a witch. He could survive a marriage to the princess of Umbria even if he was not happy. Ian was not sure he would even live to see where the white peacock brought him. He felt life and energy leaving him with each step but he could not stop. The bird was moving, and the bird was beauty. The bird seemed even more important than life.
There was no rest for Ian, even in sleep. The bird haunted his days, and the bard haunted his nights. The bard came to him in dreams and haunted him. He felt like he was still dreaming when he finally came to the bone tower.
“Are you sorry for my poor pet now?”
“I was sorry before. I should have been careful, but I was not expecting peacocks in that part of the forests.”
“Magic is always where you least expect it. Will you come into my tower?”
“You already have my heart. There is nothing else that matters in my life.”
“The princess does not matter to you?”
“I do not know the princess. You may be the only thing in Sirle who can best my father. I would fear for you both if you tried to take him.”
“Your mother? Does she not matter to you?”
“Her heart died long ago. I do not think that you could torment her.”
“Your father would come for her, not because he loved her but because she is his. He would never let a bard hold something that belongs to a king.”
“I should let my father come to you.”
“I think that he will. You belong to him even more surely than the queen does.”
Ian shook his head. “My father chose his queen. He had to settle for me.”
“He will still come,” the bard said with certainty.
“Who are you that you would contend with my father so? Are you a wizard?”
“You are the second person to ask me that this week. I will give you the same answer I gave the last man: I know a trick or two but I would hardly call myself a wizard.”
“Do you not know magic?”
“You’ve seen the evidence of that yourself.”
“You’ve dealt with me with words and tricks. Magic is something else entirely.”
His eyes watched the bard who was playing a soft song on the harp, and puffing sparks at it at the same time. The bard made her decision then and met Ian’s gaze, “Bring the princess here and I’ll let you go free.”
“No,” he answered without surprise or hesitation. “Let her be and I will stay with you.”
The bard looked at Ian then. “You’ve heard the stories of bards?” Ian nodded. “Then you know that I cannot lie. I cannot just take you and you will not let me just take the princess. You must be trapped here together. You will search for a way out together but neither will leave without the other. There is only one way to leave my home,” she added, desperately, remembering the true reason for his coming. “You may leave if you do so without your heart. Then you can leave without a piece of me.” He looked at her silently, his eyes heavy, but oddly clear.
He listened, she thought with astonishment. He heard me. He gave a nod that might have been, to a watching eye, only the shift of light across his face. Then his attention went back to door.
The bard was not happy with him. She made that clear by saying querulously, “Well, by yourself you couldn’t resist the spell of my peacock. You followed it meek as a lamb. The princess will fair no better. There is nothing you can do to stop me.”
“Oh?” Ian gasped, shocked by her words. “This isn’t about me or Sirle at all! You want the princess!”
“The princess has magic and that cannot be left untrained.”
“What will you offer for her?” Ian asked curiously.
She smiled slowly and cruelly. “What is the one thing that you can’t live without?”
“She is worth it,” Ian said with conviction. “I will give you my heart.”
~**~
In the Stone Forests
~**~
Melody traveled at a steady pace if not a fast one. Syon Med’s horse looked like it was ready to run. The golden gelding pulled at the reins and seemed more than ready to leave Melody and her horse far behind Syon. The knight kept the beast in check, making sure that Melody did not fall far behind. Still, his eyes continued to move to the horizon, as if he could see the dragon in the distance.
“Thurrin Ysig has a day’s head start on us.”
“How do you know?” Melody asked. “Have you seen the bard in a dream?”
“The Islands of Ysig are closer to the stone forests than we are. He started out with a day’s head start. We will need to travel hard to beat him to the tower.”
“I thought you didn’t trust the bard. You weren’t even sure you would chase Thurrin Ysig across the realm!”
“Like you said, I cannot play games with the king’s life.”
“Why are you so loyal to him?”
“He saved my life once.”
“The stories say that you saved his life several times over.”
“The stories don’t tell everything.”
“You told me about your queen but you still haven’t told me about the king.”
“We were practically raised together.”
“He is like a brother to you.”
“He is bound to me with ties that are stronger than blood.”
“Thurrin Ysig tried to kill him? Are the stories right about that?”
“Thurrin was only a youth during the war. Kyle Ysig, Thurrin’s father, almost killed the king and Regus Arram nearly killed Kyle in return. Glavinore and the Ysig Islanders have been enemies ever since.”
“Why has he left the Islanders to themselves for so long if they are such fierce enemies?”
“The island is heavily taxed. They are beaten down, no longer a threat.”
“Desperate men will wave pots and they are bound to hit something eventually,” Melody pointed out, thinking out loud.
“Can you ride any faster? We are already a day behind.”
“I warned you that Bella is not a fast horse.”
The bard appeared to them in a pool a short time later.
“It may be better for you both if you split up. Syon can travel faster alone and I have a separate job for Melody.”
“I’m not just going back to that tower!”
“Listen before making a decision,” the bard chided. “I need you to go to Sirle and speak with the king.”
“What? I was supposed to marry Fergus os Sirle’s son. No one in Sirle will forgive me for running away!”
“Fergus is about to make an even more, rash decision. I need you to warn the one-eyed king about Thurrin Ysig.”
“There won’t be a need to worry if Syon kills the dragon,” Melody argued.
“Fergus needs to know that Craten Ysig is coming into his power. Tell the king those exact words when you see him. He will know what to do.”
Syon looked worried, but he told Melody, “The bard is right. We need to separate. I will meet back up with you at the edge of the stone forests.”
“I don’t like this plan but I can’t think of a better one,” Melody agreed reluctantly. She traveled slowly to the court of Fergus of Sirle.
~**~
In the kingdom of Sirle
~**~
Melody took a twisting path through the forest. The woods looked dark and foreboding but Melody looked for pools of light. That was when she saw it: a tower of bones. An atrocious banging and snarling came from within but the white peacocks near the tower continued to dance around it like nothing had happened.
Melody traveled closer until she began to hear words.
“Let me out!”
Melody’s heart began to pound. “Hold on! I’m coming!” She pulled the door until her arms shook but it did not move. She pushed and got the same result. “How did you get in?”
“The bard locked me in. There is no door!”
Melody’s blood went cold. It couldn’t be the same bard! “I see a door right here.”
“It’s just an illusion,” the voice inside said. “It won’t open.”
“How did you get in?” She asked again.
“There is a green window. That’s the only way in or out.”
Melody saw it then. She would have to climb a tree to reach the window. Melody looked around and saw a tree that was just the right height. She stretched until her feet were barely touching the longest branch. The window flew open at her merest touch.
“Thank you! Thank you so much. I thought that the bard would trap me in there forever.”
“Did the bard tell you to find a tower?”
“She cursed me. I had to find the tower to get the curse removed, but she tricked me. The bard would not let me leave the tower even after I offered to leave my heart! I need to get back to Sirle! My mother is in danger!”
“Who are you?”
“Ian of Sirle,” he answered without pausing to think.
Melody swallowed noisily. “I was supposed to marry you but the bard tricked me too.” The wheels in Melody’s head began to turn. “She sent the knight Syon Med on a quest too. The bard told him to find a tower and save a queen but the bard’s peacock sent him to the wrong tower.” Melody told Ian the whole story as quickly as she could. “She sent Syon to stop Thurrin Ysig from finding a dragon and she asked me to find your father and warn him about Craten Ysig’s magic.”
“That bard is playing a game that is more deadly and more complex than any of us could have imagined. Each kingdom in the Rocky Isles is involved!”
“How do we fight someone like that?”
Now it was Ian’s turn to think. “We’ll need Thurrin Ysig’s help. She sent everyone after him for a reason.”
“We’ll have to find him first. Syon Med means to kill him!”
“Everyone is looking for him,” Ian reasoned. “We just need to follow someone else.”
“Who? We’re in the middle of the forest! There’s no one around.”
“My father will come looking for him. You cannot be the only people that the bard told to warn my father. She is a cunning soul. Sirle will send knights to hunt down the brothers from Ysig.”
“We’re sure about this? I know that Syon Med was traveling to the Stone Forests. Shouldn’t we start traveling there?”
“We should stay near the twisting trail there. It is the only path from Sirle to the Stone Forests. The Knights of Sirle will have to take that path to find their cuarry.”
Having no other ideas, Melody agreed.
~Four~
~**~
In the Forests of Sirle
~**~
The Knights came after a time. It was a ghastly night by the time they finally showed up but a rainy darkness seemed to fit the scene. Melody only hoped that following their tracks would not be too difficult.
Ian did not seem concerned at all. He kept his eyes on the rain-soaked ground and did not have any problems finding tracks. Melody did not see anything. The prints must have been as clear as day to him.
“This way,” he motioned with a whisper.
“How can you see anything with this weather?”
“If you can’t see, feel for the vibrations of hoofbeats.”
Melody did as he suggested and began to follow the horses herself. She did not pay attention to the night in front of her, only to the ground beneath her. A knight in the golden crane of Sirle almost walked on top of Melody before she saw them.
“Careful,” Ian advised with a hand on her arm. “Try to keep a hand on the ground and an eye on the horizon.”
“These knights look like they’re getting ready for a long trip,” Melody said, keeping an eye on the boxes and wagons that followed the knights. “Those supplies could last for weeks or months. The Stone Forests are not that far away.”
Ian looked about him until the bright surprise in his eyes gave way to realization. “They’re going to get my grandfather first.”
“Who is your grandfather?”
“A wizard. He can use strong magic. My grandfather’s magic is almost strong enough to take Sirle from my father. My father banished him for his impertinence.”
“Where is he at?” Melody asked
“He is trapped on an island in the Sirle sea.”
“His island must be a small one. No one knew that those islands existed.”
“They’re going to walk to the river. There is a boat waiting there.  The trip really could take weeks,” Ian said in a worried voice.
“Should we stow away on the boat?”
“No,” Ian said, making a snap decision. “We need to get to Syon Med. These knights won’t lead us to Thurrin Ysig.”
“Alright.” Part of Melody wanted to argue but a stronger part told her that nothing else could be done. She felt lost… She had trusted the bard but now she could not think of why.
Without another thought, Melody found the path to the Stone Forest. Days were spent walking, and the walk seemed longer to Melody, who had made the trip before. She felt like she was in a dream. Each color was too bright, and the sun was too strong. She wanted to hide, but she needed to find Syon Med first.
She saw the ships and the knights and knew that she was too late.
Ian’s face grew red with anger. “He used my grandfather. The old-eyed king stole magic!”
The king of Sirle saw her. He was an eye in her mind instantly, unblinking as she fled, forcing her finally into a maze where every wall that stopped her turned into an eye. Once she turned and stood, refusing to move. The eye turned to fire in her head; from some far place she felt pain and screamed.
Abruptly, she could see again. She was on her knees, clinging to stone, trembling as if she had been running for her life through a maze of palaces. Fergus had turned away from her to watch the peacock come. It flew fast, and it flew straight to Ian. He could not seem to move; he could only watch it, his head uplifted. He tried to speak; he could not. Fear rushed into him but he did not let it consume him. The peacock was trying to tell him something, and he was not sure if it was the bird or the bard who spoke.
Melody tried to go to him, to call to him but Fergus’s web of power still held her. Power swept through Melody, from her blood, and from her schooling. She shook free of the web that held her, and shouted to Ian, “Not the peacock! It’s the bard! She deceived us! Remember!” The peacock became fire and changed course, flying straight at Syon Med. The bard and the bird both took all their pain and all their fear, throwing all that ferry right at the knight. The knight screamed, but he did not fall.
Ian, his face rigid with fury, had no question about who to blame. He rolled to his feet and leaped in a single unbroken movement, at his father. Fergus, startled, nearly unleashed mage-fire; he pulled it back quickly as his son’s body struck him. He staggered, regained his balance and gripped Ian. The back of his hand, coupled with the magic of his un-seeing eye, whipped across Ian. He fell and lay still. A few of the Sirle knights stirred, but they quieted when Fergus met their eyes. He said calmly, “It was necessary. He will understand. I will explain it all when he wakes.” He turned to Syon then, “Where is Thurrin Ysig?”
Syon could only shake his head and look at Melody.
Melody’s eyes flicked at Syon, leaning drained and helpless against the stones. She bowed her head, playing for time. She said the fastest spell she knew and watched as a teardrop with a small, amber fire dropped into her hand. The king, his eyes on it, stepped toward her. She flung the tear at him. It exploded in a thunderclap of light. For a moment Fergus vanished among the enchantment: a scattering of garnet roses and flashes of blue light. But he was able to shape himself out of the spell and the knights were able to hold Melody.
Fergus shook the last of the spell from his eyes and stepped over his son’s body to her. “Perhaps.” he said, “you will give me something to fight after all in your peaceful kingdom. You and the knight who can fight dragons and magic alike.” He held her eyes and waited. After a long time, Melody told him the bard’s message.
“You know it’s too late. Thurrin and Craten Ysig are both safe on their island with a dragon,” Melody tried to keep the fear from her voice but only succeeded in making a robotic clang.
“That’s not precisely true. Is it, Syon Med?”
Syon looked at him then with glowing eyes. “Thurrin Ysig did not want a dragon. He only wanted a cup. I helped him win his cup, and he gave me his word to leave Glavinore in peace. The bard was not telling us the whole truth.”
“Ian and I figured that out on our own.”
“The bard’s lies worked,” Fergus roared. “Thurrin and Craten Ysig are stuck on a defenseless island!”
“That island is far from defenseless!” Syon reminded the king. He held his side with a bloody hand but Melody could not see any other injuries. “Thurrin took more than a cup from this tower!”
Fergus leaned in close to the fallen knight. “What else did the crown prince of Ysig take when he left the tower?” The knight’s only answer was silence. “I will give you to my knights if you refuse to answer, Syon Med. I will give the Lady Greenwood to my knights when I take Glavinore.”
Syon tried to jump at the one-eyed king but the wound in his side made the movement more of a flop than anything else. He groaned before telling the king of Sirle, “Thurrin Ysig took a staff with a ruby at its head. The ruby was cut into the shape of a five-pointed star; just like the ruby in the goblet Thurrin took.”
“I take it from your tone that you know what that goblet can do?” Fergus growled more than asked.
“I know what the staff does too. I know that even a wizard with your skills can’t beat that magic.” Syon Med’s words came in short gasps.
“Craten Ysig is untrained.”
“The cup can change that. It can give the boy control over his powers.”
“The bard and I will just have to keep Thurrin from reaching his brother,” Fergus purred.
~**~
Fergus went to speak with the bard and tie up loose ends. Melody, Syon, and Ian were left in the care of the Sirle knights. None of the knights wanted to be responsible for holding the powerless son of the king.
They tied Ian’s hands with leather thongs after weaving Syon in a web of magic. They put a series of similar lightning ties on Melody. Strings of magic crisscrossed the held Syon immobile. One string sent a jolt of electricity into Melody if she moved more than a step or two in any direction.
All three of them could see that they were stuck. Their only option was to wait until the king of Sirle returned. Hopefully, he would move them to a location with fewer knights. Prisoners were not the first thing on Fergus’s mind when he returned. Fergus did not return alone. He appeared just as suddenly as he had left.
A squirming body rested on his shoulder. Ian could only see the figure’s legs. One leg looked strong, but the other was withered. The squirming figure had to be Craten Ysig. Fergus tossed the body down next to Ian. Fergus spit out a spell put it never hit Craten. The spell fell on Ian instead.
Ian took a deep breath, ready to shout but Fergus took the fire from him and spoke first. “I brought him back for you. I want to explain things,” the king told his son.
Fergus took a ritual blade from a knight, walked over to where Ian crouched before Craten. The king’s shadow fell over his son; Ian lifted his face. Whatever his eyes held made Fergus toss the blade on the ground. He squatted in front of Ian, held his shoulders. “Listen to me?” He dodged spit, said again, patiently, “Listen.”
Ian gazed past him, not moving now. “I was aiming that spell at Craten Ysig. You flung yourself in the way, in some misguided attempt to protect the boy. You won’t let me explain. Won’t listen to reason?”
“You,” Ian said furiously, “made a deal with the bard so that I could never return home! So that I could never speak the truth, never say that you wove lies to kill Craten Ysig.”
“That’s not true,” Fergus said gravely.
“What’s not true? Which part?”
“That I never wanted you to return. I would have searched for you. Your mother’s gone and I could never bear loosing you both!” Ian’s face flamed. He rolled so fast, his father barely had time to move; his sharp kick caught the one-eyed man in the chest, but only hard enough to stagger him. Ian was off balance as he rose with his hands bound.
Fergus slithered behind his son and slid one arm between his wrists, jerking the arms upward. Ian gasped. Fergus forced his rigid arms higher; the blood ran out of his face; but he closed his eyes, avoiding his father’s gaze. He could not keep his eyes closed forever though.
“Listen to me,” Fergus said again, very patiently, and coldly. Moving so that his one eye stared wholly at his son.
Melody could not listen to anymore but one thought spurred her on: Either here or in Umbria. She flung power across the web and ducked into Craten’s shadow. Syon Med, moving faster than the eye could follow, picked up the blade Fergus had dropped. Melody’s power tangled in the web; it became a flaring crosshatch of light that dissipated before touching Fergus.
Syon Med brought the ritual blade slashing down between Ian’s wrists. It cut through the leather, but Fergus misted away at its touch. Syon vanished as the king reappeared. Then a strange light sprang down out of nowhere, peeled layers of wind and power and time itself apart like paper.
Craten Ysig stood there with his hands out raised the power had been his.
~**~
The tower of the dragon in the Stone Forests
~**~
Thurrin Ysig tried to leave the tower for the third time but again, an invisible wall blocked his path. He could see a door but it would not open. The dragon had allowed Thurrin to enter the tower. The beast seemed to know that no one would be able to leave and saw no need to work to keep them out.
Thurrin had made his way into the tower with ease and he had found the stared goblet without a fuss. But he could not get out. Craten needed the goblet and Thurrin could not return home without being able to present the cup to his brother.
Thurrin could not just give up. He walked into a wall and found a stone wall.
Again.
And again.
And Again.
And then he felt the horror all trapped animals must heal.
“I went looking for a miracle and found a trap.”
Thurrin was about to give up hope, to accept that he would die alone in that tower, to lie down and slowly die. That’s when the knight came. The knight wore a surcoat with three golden towers on a field of blue and Thurrin knew that he was from Glavinore. Thurrin eyed the knight, seeing a threat.
With a mighty yell, the knight charged at Thurrin. Thurrin was ready for the knight’s attack. Thurrin did not have a sword, but he got out his knives. Thurrin’s father had taught him to fight. He had fought a man with a sword before and he had won two times out of five. Thurrin knew how to beat the knight but he needed to stay focused to manage it.
“The bard told me all about your plan! I know that you plan on destroying Glavinore!”
Thurrin looked concerned then. “A bard told you to come here? Did she have a bone-white harp?”
Syon Med could only nod. “You’ve met her? She told you to come here?”
“I met her, but she did not want me to come. My father found an old book that told us about the tower and about the dragon. The bard came to take my brother.”
“Why would she want your brother?”
“He can do magic but he can’t control it. She thinks he’ll be dangerous but he’ll be able to control his magic if I bring him a special goblet. I’ll recognize it when I see a ruby cut in the shape of a star.”
“What game is that bard playing? Whose side is she on?” Syon breathed out in anger.
“The bards of Sron cannot lie,” Thurrin reminded the knight.
“She doesn’t tell the whole truth either. I need to find her. She is playing us all and more deftly than she plays that harp.”
“Craten warned me. He said that the bard would be trouble if I did not take her with me but the woman fainted before we could leave. I let her stay in Ysig.”
“Is she there now?”
“I do not know. I can’t leave this tower.”
“We both got in.”
“And now we are both caught,” Thurrin felt like he was repeating himself.
“We can help each other.”
“Think, knight! We can’t leave!”
“The dragon is holding the door,” Syon Med explained. “We just need to call the dragon by his name.”
This reminded Thurrin of something Craten had babbled while reading. “Chin-len?”
A burst of air announced that the door had been opened. Light and rock burst from the doorway with a puff of air and bathed the chamber within in light.
“How did you know what name to say?”
“Craten reads too much. He knew the name. I just had to remember.”
“The bard said that your brother knows magic. The king of Sirle views him as an enemy.”
Thurrin looked at Syon Med in surprise. “Neither Craten nor I have ever met this king of Sirle. I already knew that Ragis Arram of Glavinore would be our enemy but I never thought of other kings.”
“One enemy seems like more than enough. The bard seems to be an enemy of us all. She told Melody, a woman who traveled with me, to deliver a message to the king of Sirle: Craten Ysig is coming into his power.”
“The king of Sirle is famous for knowing magic. Why would he care that some second-son of an islander is learning magic? That does not seem like a threat to him.”
“I do not understand how magic works; I am no magician or wizard but I know that magic takes no accounting of riches or size. Your brother may be stronger than King Fergus of Sirle. I doubt that Fergus wants to take that chance. Fergus will want to kill your brother before he comes into his power.”
“Then I have to take the dragon now. I have to protect my brother!”
“You will need more than the dragon’s name to control him. That dragon will do whatever it wants after you free it from this tower.”
“How else can I protect Craten?”
“There must be something here in this tower. Look at all of this!” Syon Med could see that the tower was covered in treasure. He just needed to make Thurrin Ysig see it too. He needed to make Thurrin think! “There are a thousand gold coins in that pile and ten strong swords in this chamber alone.”
“I cannot buy weapons,” Thurrin said sadly. “Regus Arram will only tax the coin from me.”
“That staff has a ruby in the shape of a star. I bet your brother could use that.”
Thurrin went to look at the staff and came back with a book. “Craten will want this. The book tells how to use the staff.”
“Knowledge will keep your brother safe,” Syon agreed. “I understand that you need to protect your family but I need to protect my home too. I cannot let you leave until I have your word.”
“I will not attack Glavinore unless Regus Arram attacks me first. I only want safety for my brother and my house.”
“Then I wish you luck.”
The two men stepped out of the tower and into a surprise. A small cloud of sand rose on the horizon. “Is that a sandstorm?” Syon Med asked in alarm.
“That’s a band of travelers. The sand is from horses. But what are travelers doing out here? No one comes to the Stone Forest.”
“It’s a trick from the bard or from Fergus of Sirle!” The two men crawled closer, staying under the bushes, and saw the knight was right. These men were from Sirle and whore Sirle’s golden crane on their chests.
“You need to back to your brother before Fergus finds him. I will distract them while you go to him.”
Thurrin Ysig could only nod while Syon Med raised his sword and charged the knights of Sirle.
~Five~
Craten Ysig raised his hands again before the king of Sirle could call up a spell of his own. Craten was untrained, but he did not need to aim his magic, only unleash it. Craten Ysig came into his power that day. The love he felt for Thurrin awoke the magic. An overwhelming fear covered everything but his love and drove the magic to not only be awake but also controlled.
Craten have never drunk from the ruby-stared goblet or even touched the staff but he could control his magic. Fergus could since the young prince’s power and sheer flow of it made him wilt. Fergus of Sirle had been a magic-user for decades and he had a firm grasp of what he could, and could not, do. Fergus knew beyond a doubt that he did not have the level of magic required to beat Craten Ysig.
Fergus was about to lose hope but then a small smile played on his face. Anyone could use the ruby-stared staff… A plan formed in his mind and he flew away from Craten and towards the Ysig Islands.
Ian looked at his father’s fleeing form in shock. “What just happened?”
“I don’t know…” Craten Ysig sounded more shocked than anyone else.
“I thought you chased him off with magic,” Melody said to Craten.
“I called my magic, but I never threw it at Fergus of Sirle. He never ran from me.”
Ian nodded. “My father would have never run from a fight.”
Syon looked at Craten in surprise. “Did your brother get to you? Did you drink from the ruby-stared goblet?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Melody looked at Syon and Craten in surprise. “That’s where the king is going! Fergus of Sirle is going to fight Thurrin Ysig. He’s traveling to your island!”
“Thurrin can’t be there,” Craten argued. “He left to travel the Stone Forest, looking for a dragon and a tower.”
“He found the tower,” Syon told them and launched into the whole story. “Thurrin left while I distracted Fergus,” Syon finished. “Thurrin must have been held-up getting back to you. Maybe he saw Fergus carrying you here.”
Craten shook his head. “I doubt my brother would just sit and watch. He is very protective.”
Melody remembered another problem. “The bard was in Ysig. Is she still there?”
“She stayed for a time but left in the night. I have no idea where she went.”
“Fergus of Sirle is allied with her now. I would not be surprised if she went to my father’s palace.”
“Can you get us there? The knights are no longer interested in us,” Melody said.
“We haven’t tried to leave. I think that the knights will keep us here,” Syon Med said.
“They will obey me if my father is not here.” Each of them turned a hopeful eye to Ian and willed him to be right.
The prince of Sirle marched up to a knight and demanded that horses be brought for each of them. To his delight and surprise, the knights listened to him and did as he asked. The world came crashing down when they tried to leave with those horses.
“An honor guard will escort you to Sirle, my prince,” the captain declared. “It would not do to have a member of the royal family ride alone.”
Syon only shrugged. “We wanted to go to the palace at Sirle anyway.”
Melody had other ideas. “I can’t answer for the rest of you but I need to be able to return to Umbria after we get information in Sirle.”
“My king has made arrangements for all of you,” the captain told them in a clipped voice. One hand rested on his sword and brooked no argument. “You will be given fine rooms and will have no need to leave the palace.”
Ian cleared his throat. “These people are my guests. They may come and go as they please and are to be shown every courtesy.” The unspoken order to his tone was evident.
“I’m afraid that the king’s orders have precedence over your own, my prince.”
“What are my father’s orders?” Ian asked, not trying to hide the anger in his voice.
“My company are to take you and your friends to Tamlyn Palace in Sirle.”
Ian looked surprised. “Pellior Palace is closer and Daimon Palace is more secure. Why choose the Tamlyn Palace?”
“You can ask your father when he joins us,” the commander suggested.
“When will King Fergus be joining us? Where was he going?” Melody could not help but ask. “Did he plan on leaving? This all seems so sudden.”
The captain laughed. “The king does not share his plans with me. Only his advisors know his mind. I do what I’m told and follow orders. My orders are to take you to Tamlyn Palace. I don’t ask why.”
~**~
The prisoners and their company left their camp before sunset and continued riding until well after midnight. The horses needed rest and they all needed food. They sat down to a meal of hearty travel fair: dark bread and crumbly cheese. None of them had spoken a word. The captain had made it clear that noise and distractions would not be tolerated on the trip.
“My orders are to take you to the palace. My duties will be fulfilled even if you’re gaged and hogtied.”
Ian had forced himself to be quiet for the whole trip but now he could no longer hold himself back. “This is not the way we traveled before. My father brought me to the Tamlyn Palace many times when I was a boy.”
“Your father thought it best if we traveled through the mountains. It will do your friends good to see the peaks,” the commander explained. “That’s enough talking for now. We need to get moving.”
The party traveled through the next day without rest. Melody had to be tied to the saddle after she fell asleep riding. The others were not fairing much better. Ian could barely keep his eyes open. The magic Craten had done took something out of him and he was still recovering. Syon Med had been to war and had spent many long nights without sleep in the past but the cold, bracing wind was something new to him. They were all fading fast.
Ian tried to order the captain to stop after the war-hardened man continued riding for a second day. When orders did not work, Ian tried logic. “None of us can survive a trip through the mountains under these conditions. We all need rest. Your own men are showing signs of wear.”
“My men will be fine,” the commander said with confidence but he did call for a rest. The prisoners were not granted any respite. “Take our guests for a walk. They need the exercise.”
They all tried not to groan.
Days began to blur together after that. The four of them dozed on their horses and often slept through meals. They snagged whatever moments of rest were available no matter how rare. None of them were permitted to sleep when they stopped at night and travel during the day was often strenuous. Craten was so tired that he almost missed his brother’s appearance. A shadow passed overhead and Craten could only assume that Fergus of Sirle had returned.
A grunt from the knight leading his horse told him that the shadow could not be Fergus. Craten looked up in surprise and could not hold in a shout of happiness. Thurrin Ysig stood there with a sword in his hand.
Craten pulled on his ropes until he could move. Craten jumped off his horse, ran forward, gripping his brother’s arms and crying. “I thought you were dead!”
Thurrin wrapped his arms around his brother and told him, “I already explained to you, you are Ysigís heart. I couldn’t’ just leave you.”
“Fergus of Sirle was coming to kill you.”
“I saw him carry you off so I ran after him but he was too fast. I lost him and then just got lost,” Thurrin explained. “I’m sorry I took so long.”
Craten almost burst into tears. “I’m just so glad to see you!”
“There wíll be plenty of time to celebrate late. For now, just rest,” Thurrin commanded in a gentle voice.
“What about the others? They’ll need help. The knights will notice that we’re missing.”
“I’ll see what I can do for them. But you need to rest.”
Craten was too tired to argue. He got down and fell asleep instantly.
Thurrin got to work stripping the weapons and armor from the knights who had been watching Craten. He looked like a knight now and had no problem blending in.  The problem was that he did not know the others well. He heard stories of Ian of Sirle and Melody of Umbria but he had never seen then to know them. He spotted Syon Med easily enough they could not help but see the shadows under his eyes even from a distance. The king of Sirle was not treating any of them well!
Thurrin immediately saw his chance when the company stopped for a night.
“Who has first shift tonight? I don’t know if I can march them around again without passing out myself!” A knight called Dugal announced loudly.
“You got a full nights’ rest yesterday and the night before that!” Adam, a knight with purple griffins on his surcoat, proclaimed. “When was the last time you had a shift, Greggor?”
It took Thurrin a moment to realize the knight was talking to him. “I’ve got it,” Thurrin grunted out in a deep voice, reaching up untie sleeping figures from horses. The other knights left him to the work, all happy to get a night of rest.
“Syon Med,” Thurrin whispered. “It’s me. Thurrin Ysig. I owe you a favor and I am here to repay it.”
Syon’s head flew up. “You can’t be Thurrin Ysig. You must be a dream.”
The noise from the conversation woke Melody. Her eyes were more alert. “Craten isn’t here.”
“He is safe. I left him to rest with my islanders.”
“How many people did you bring?” Ian asked.
Thurrin recognize them all now. He memorized their faces in the darkness. “I have not brought many men with me, Ian of Sirle. The Island of Ysig is small but surely some of these knights are loyal to you and not your father…”
Ian shook his head. “My father is a strong leader. I have no intention of being a king. I do not think I will be a good one. These knights were chosen by my father and they have not allowed me any illusions about becoming any kind of king. I will be a puppet.”
Thurrin could only look at the prince in sorrow. He knew the taste powerlessness left in the back of the throat. He felt it when he knelt before Glavinoreís king with his father. “At least you are alive. That is something.”
“For a king there are worse things than death,” Ian said in a voice that was so cold that the words had to be a quote.
“You donít want to be a king. You still have a choice,” Melody reminded him.
“Only if we all get away from my father. I already tried running and I only ended up back here. Where can I go now? Where can I hide that wonít put everyone else in danger?”
“I will not let Fergus of Sirle take my brother again,” Thurrin swore in an intense voice. “The Island of Ysig will protect all of you.”
“Glavinore will attack the island if I donít save the queen,” Syon told them.
“Are you talking about the woman in the tower?” Melody asked, remembering why Syon had come to Stone Forest. “That was only a bardís trick. She gave you a mission to distract you. None of it was real!”
“I know what I saw,” Syon Med argued. “The woman who married Regus Arram is not human.”
“Regus Arram hates Ysig Island. He does not need an excuse to attack,” Thurrin argued. “Leave Regus Arram to his fate. Other things are more important.”
Syonís face and vision went red. “I gave my oath! I cannot just abandon Glavinore or Regus.”
“They have abandoned you!” Thurrin hissed back. They were further from the camp now but not far enough to risk shouting. “Regus chose his new wife over his kingdom. You know that if you told him the truth, he would never accept it; even if you showed proof.”
“Regus is a good man. He is ensorcelled, be-spelled. Itís not his fault.”
Melody looked back and forth between the two men like they were both insane. Finally, she said, “Now is not the time to play the blame game. We need to think about where to hide. We can help Regus and save Ysig after we save ourselves.”
Thurrin and Syon Med both nodded. They put their feud behind them and acted like knights, ready for the next campaign. They stayed silent as the group made its way toward the islanders Thurrin had brought. Once the groups met, Thurrin lead them all to a river boat. Syon and Thurrin gave up on their silence once they entered the boat.
The rest of them gave way to sleep and Syon and Thurrin whispered fiercely in conversation.
“You think you can hide Craten away from the world? I saw him do magic.”
“I can keep all of you safe on Ysig Island,” Thurrin swore. “Iíve kept the island safe for years.”
“You canít control peopleís thoughts. People will remember what Craten did and men like Fergus of Sirle and Regus Arram of Glavinore will not rest until they have power like Craten. They will hold Craten until they understand his magic and how he got it.”
“The bard already knows more than Craten does. Thereís no reason for them to worry when they have a bard.”
“You know Regus Arram even if youíve never met Fergus,” Syon reminded Thurrin. “He is a cautious man. Regus will not settle for one magic-user. He wonít feel safe unless he has them all.”
Thurrin looked Syon Med in the eye then. “How do I help him? What can I do to keep Craten safe from Regus Arram?”
“You canít keep him safe alone. Let the rest of us help you. Umbria has sorcerers and wizards of its own. One of them can teach Craten and maybe even protect your island.”
Thurrin sighed and nodded. “Get some rest. Iíll talk with you and the others about a solution. We need to list our resources but all of that can be done after you sleep.”
“Theyíve all had a harder time than me.”
“You look like you could sleep for a week but the rest look like they might need a month.”
“A few hours would not be remiss,” Syon agreed. He was asleep in seconds.
~**~
Fergus of Sirle fell out of the sky like a star. The landing was sudden and graceful but the knights still seemed surprised and frightened to see him.
“Welcome back, my liege,” the captain greeted.
“What have I missed from our guests? Speak quickly, captain. Thurrin Ysigís island was a waste of time and I am in no mood for excuses.”
“They are gone, sire,”
“What! You let them escape?”
“I have my best men chasing them,” the captain assured him.
“You are my best man and you couldn’t keep them in one place! They should have been too exhausted to sit up, much less run away!”
“My men followed all your instructions,” the captain insisted. “Your guests could barely stay on their horses. Clearly they had help. There were guards stationed with the magic-user and they tell me that his brother came with a small group of Islanders.”
“Will your men stay as witnesses?” Fergus asked in a tone that commanded more than questioned. “I need any information your men have about these rescuers.”
The captain looked at his king with questions in his eyes. “Surely you already know where they are headed. Thurrin Ysig will run back to his island.”
“I am sure that’s true but I want to know what rout they took and how much help they have.”
“I’ll bring the men in question and let them answer for themselves.”
Fergus uncovered his missing eye. “Bring in the first witness.”
“They said something about a ship, my king,” one said.
“Someone mentioned the Pellior River,” said another.
The kingís mouth curved in a slow smile.
~**~
The raft was nearly to the river head by the time the Craten woke. He looked around him at the long windows and marshy landscape before going to search out his brother. He saw many cowhearders and fishermen from the island and he asked each of them where his brother was. Each friendly face pointed towards the wheel of the ship.
Craten found his brother at the wheel of the ship.
“Welcome back to the land of the living!” Thurrin greeted with a wave.
“How long was I out?”
“About twelve hours. You’ll be in bed early for a few days before you feel rested.”
“I still think I could sleep for a week,” Craten agreed. “But I am feeling better.”
“It’s good to have you back. Ysig needs you.”
“I never did anything in Ysig. The bard told me that I had power but I never believed her. When Fergus threatened youÖ It was like I turned into someone else. Iím still trying to figure out if Iím the Craten who throws sticks from horses or the Craten who throws lightning.”
“Youíre who you need to be. The island needs you, no matter which Craten you decide to be.”
“I canít make a decision before talking to our father.”
Thurrinís looks sadden as he spoke. “He has gotten more maundering. He cannot decide if I am his son or his brother. Sometimes I must be both at once.”
“Are you ever yourself?”
“You know he never remembers my name. I do not think he remembers how to say my name. He knew when you went missing though. He almost seemed like his old self again when he ordered me to go after you.”
“I did not think you made it on to the Island.”
“He called to me from the ship.”
Both brothers smiled at each other, thinking of their father.
Syon Med joined the brothers on the deck then. “Have you seen the shore?” Syon whispered through clinched teeth.
“What about it?” Craten asked in confusion.
“The shadows,” Thurrin saw. “Theyíve found us!”
“Wake the others,” Syon ordered Craten.
Craten ran to do as he was bidden. “Whatís going on?” Melody and Ian each asked. Craten could only shake his head in response. He hurriedly explained that a shadow was seen but the other two looked as confused as he felt.
“Is it Fergus of Sirle?” Melody asked once they made it to the deck. “A creature of the bard?”
“This is a creation of Fergus,” Thurrin said with certainty. “Do you recognize it, Ian?”
The prince shook his head. “Everyone knows my father can do magic and that he calls strange beasts to his tower. But I do not know more than anyone else. He kept his magic private and I had no desire to hear about the horrors he called.”
“That storm is not natural,” Thurrin said pointing.
“A dragon rides before the clouds but I do not remember its name,” Ian said quickly, offering what knowledge he could.
“Does the dragon breathe fire?” Syon asked with fear evident in his voice.
“Are there dragons that donít?”
“Get in the water!” Thurrin yelled, seeing the fire in the air before it came to the ship.
None of them could think of anything but escaping the fire. So no one thought about swimming. The water was moving fast and had tricky under tows. None of them were bad swimmers but none of them were especially strong either. The water pulled them in unknown directions and periodically underwater.
It seemed like days and years until they could pull themselves, dripping wet, to the riverís shore. Each person felt alone, not knowing whether their fellows traveled to the left or the right, the north or the south.
Ian tried to follow the river, hoping that he would run into someone. Shadowy figures appeared before him and his heart lifted.
“Hello!” He shouted, waving his arms.
It was not until the men were upon him that he saw the surcoats they wore. Each held a golden crane on a field of green. Ian tried to run but it was too late for that. The knights had him penned and tied after mere seconds pasted. He sagged thinking the fight was over, until he heard a high-pitched scream. Ian kicked and wiggled until he saw two more knights dragging Melody behind them.
“Get your hands off her!” Ian ordered, trying to rise. A booted foot planted itself on his back and held him firmly to the ground.
“Calm down, young prince,” the captain ordered. “Youíll soon be safe and sound in your father’s palace.”
Ian kicked and struggled for all he was worth.
“None of that now,” the captain admonished. “Your father wants you brought back to the palace unharmed. I will have to keep you from hurting yourself.”
“Just don’t hurt her and I’ll be still,” Ian promised. “I’ll come peaceably.”
“What is this girl to you?”
“You should ask her.”
The captain shook his head. “I’m asking you and I expect an answer. You may be a prince but you’re under my supervision. Do not push me on this!”
Ian swallowed, knowing that the only way to help Melody was to tell the truth. “She is my betrothed, Princess Melody of Umbria.”
“You can’t ransom me away!” Melody yelled. “I turned down the marriage and Umbria lost everything. My father can’t pay any ransom.” Melody’s mind turned over scenario after scenario, each more unlikely than the last.
“My king is not after money,” the captain told her in a gentle voice. “He will be glad to know that you’ve reconsidered the marriage.”
“What! No!” The words came out of Melody’s mouth before she could think. She saw the hurt in Ian’s eyes but it was too late to take the words back.
“You won’t have much choice in the matter. You can marry the Prince of Sirle or you can be given away to another country. Umbria will surely fall if you refuse the Prince of Sirle’s hand for a second time.”
“Don’t drag her into this,” Ian bagged. “You don’t need her.”
“The king has his plan and I have my orders.” The captain turned to his men and ordered, “Bring them back to base.”
Ian fought for all he was forth when the knights began to drag him forward. Melody kicked too but her movements had little effect. Ian’s guards called out in alarm. He hoped that he could make enough of a distraction for her to run but something heavy hit the back of his head and he knew no more.
~Six~
Thurrin gave his brother what privacy he could. He and Craten had crawled onto shore a short time ago, both breathing hard. Thurrin was still catching his breath but Craten had swallowed half the river. He was still coughing up water, but they were both alive. Everything important was accounted for.
Thurrin would give his brother the time he and needed and then the two of them could look for the others along the river bank.
“You should start,” Craten said between coughing fits. “They could be hurt.”
Thurrin shook his head. “We shouldn’t separate.”
“We could search faster if we separate.” Craten’s coughs were coming less often. He would be able to walk soon but Thurrin wanted to make sure he was alright first. Craten took too much on himself and Thurrin needed to remind him of his limits.
“We can’t help the others if we’re caught. If we stay together, we can watch each other’s backs. Will you help me look?”
“I’ll watch your back,” Craten promised. “Do you have a sword?”
Thurrin shook his head. “I found a branch that has some weight to it.”
Craten reached down and pocketed some stones. “These will have to do.”
Thurrin looked at his brother critically. “We shouldn’t need weapons. Just keep your eyes open and shout if you see anything.”
Craten nodded. “Where should we start?”
“Let’s head downriver.”
The two of them started walking. They had only gone a few miles when Thurrin heard booted feet. It sounded like at least ten men. “Get into the trees!” Thurrin ordered, pushing his brother into the foliage.
Craten obeyed without question, crawling further into the thick forest where leaves fell like messages from the sky. The knights marching by did not see either of them. The only noise that could be heard was the sound of the birds flitting among the leaves. Dozens of nameless things scurrying through the branches and bracken but the knights did not seem to notice any of them; so intent were they on their query.
“The prince said that there weren’t anyone else survived,” one knight said.
“The prince had his reasons for lying. Captain Kalin likes to be thorough. So, we’re checking the river’s edge.”
“You saw what happened to that ship. It’s amazing that the princess and prince survived!”
“Was she really a princess?” Another knight in gold and green asked.
“I’ve never been to Umbria, but the prince had no reason to lie.”
“We’re bringing the king’s son and a princess back to Sirle. What more could King Fergus want?”
“Just keep your eyes open. You know that the younger son of Ysig can do magic. The king doesn’t want someone with powers like that to have a chance to go against Sirle.”
“Will there be war?” It was obvious that this speaker was young. His voice showed an excitement reserved only to the young.
“The king has plans to bring greatness to our land.”
“Shut up, you knockers!” A commanding voice called. “Keep moving. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can get to bed.”
“Yes, sir!”
The knights disappeared into the darkness.
Thurrin and Craten waited breathless moments that seemed to last hours before the knights moved on. Thurrin held up his hand in a minute signal to his brother and waited as long as his heart could stand before moving.
“Are they gone?” Craten’s eyes grew to take up half his face as he spoke.
“They’re gone,” Thurrin assured him. “They wore Sirle’s colors on their surcoats.”
“They talked about Melody and Ian. The two of them must have been caught! We need to help them!”
“We can’t help them if we’re caught ourselves. We need to move.”
The two of them moved away from the knights and further down the river bank. They saw lights on the other side of the river and ran into the trees, hoping that they had not been spotted. Shadows played across the ground like a mist and helped to hide them. Tangled shadows from oaks shrank as the sun rose.
“Not that way,” a voice hissed. “There are more knights.”
“Syon Med!” Thurrin greeted in happiness.
“How did you escape?”
“I hardly know. Everything happened so fast. I just swam and hid.”
“Have you seen Ian or Melody?” Craten asked.
“No. I planned on looking for them when the knights left.”
“We heard knights saying that a princess had been captured with King Fergus’s son,” Thurrin explained the whole story quickly.
“We need to get to the island and send a message to Umbria. The king will not allow his daughter to be held like that,” Syon said.
Thurrin nodded. “We flee to Ysig and send a message from there.”
The three of them were in agreement. They made their way down the river to a port and a ship as the sun rose high. Syon saw the glint of armor on the docks as the group got nearer and nearer. King Fergus was watching for them.
“There are some dishonest sailors who don’t mind going against a king,” Thurrin said quickly.
“We don’t have time to get to know the sailors. Stowing away is our best option,” Syon suggested. “The island is only a few hours from the port.”
“Those barrels,” Thurrin pointed, “we can hide in them.”
“How do we know that they’re going to the island?”
“The marking on the lid,” Syon said, pointing to the word Ysig printed on the lid.
The three of them stayed in the tense confides of the barrels until the weightlessness of being lifted was followed by the thump of the dock. Steps moved away and after shifting and moving through the hours, they chanced moving.
Thurrin moved first with a slight groan. “The coast is clear,” he called in a soft voice. “We need to move before those sailors try to empty the barrels.”
“What will they do if they find us?” Craten asked with fear coloring his voice.
“Best case scenario is a whipping,” Syon told them. “In the worst case scenario the sailors will bring us back to Sirle and deliver us to King Fergus.”
“We need to move for the trader’s road before either scenario happens.”
The three of them moved as one into the main road and away from the ships. It was not until they reached the mountain passes that Thurrin looked up and saw something he had never seen before.
“Are you two seeing this?”
A commit lit up the sky in the distance. It glowed a strange, unearthly red and led a tail that trailed a foot even in the vast distance. The commit was a sign but Thurrin could not guess what portance the commit brought. It looked alien in the morning light.
“Is that a commit?” Syon asked.
“In the day light?” Craten sounded incredulous. “I’ve only heard of this happening once and that was centuries ago.”
“What prophecy was the red star fulfilling then?” Thurrin asked his brother.
“The star was sent as a warning of change. People could either adapt or die out.”
“Did the people survive then?” Syon asked in wonder.
“History is written by the survivors,” Thurrin reminded them both. “Something lived through that time.”
“Do you think that the red commit came from the red star?”
“The star on the goblet that the bard sent us to find? They could be connected.”
“Stars don’t become commits,” Craten argued.
“I doubt that the ancients knew much about astrology,” Thurrin argued back.
“That’s not true! The charts we use now were made by the ancient Babilarians. We have to use fragments of their work to understand the cosmos.”
“I told you: you read too much,” Thurrin teased.
“I’m going to need to start reading more Babilarus text. Ysig Island needs to know what that thing is… and what it means.”
The other two could only nod in agreement.
~**~
Ian awoke to a bounding headache and the lurching movement of a cart. Melody’s bound form hovered over him with worry reflected in her eyes. Ian tried to sit up and the ache in his head began to lessen.
“Where are we?”
“We’re headed back to the Pellior River. Your father has a ship waiting for us there.”
Ian breathed a sigh of relief. “I feared that the knights would do something rash.”
Melody shrugged. “They just tossed us in the back of this cart.”
“How many knights are with us? Do you know?”
“A decade squad stayed. The rest went to look for other survivors of the shipwreck.”
“I hope that the Islanders were able to get away. The knights will not be gentle if they are found.”
“Will he be gentle with us?”
“No one has hurt us yet. My father needs us.”
“Who else does he need?”
“I wish I knew but I’ve never had a head for my father’s plans. I doubt he’d have a use for farmers and fishermen. The Ysig brothers might have a place in his plans but the common people will be expendable to him. I had to tell the knights that you were a princess. They would have killed you if you weren’t.”
“I understand why you told them who I am,” Melody told Ian. “I’m not happy about it but I understand it.”
“Try to keep your eyes and ears open. We need to escape before they force us onto the boat. There will be more knights on the ship and watching us will be even easier.”
Melody nodded. “We shouldn’t have many problems alluding the knights in the dark. Wait until night and we’ll make our way then.”
“Try to appear tired and weak. I’ll do my best to look wounded. I’ll walk with a limp and they’ll never guess that we could run. The knights will let their guard down and we’ll have an even better chance.”
“I can do that but I should warn you that I’ll need to be especially convening. I kicked and fought the whole time you were out.”
“Act like you pulled a muscle fighting before. You hurt your arm.”
“Wouldn’t hurting my leg make more since?”
“The knights will be suspicious if we both start walking with a limp.”
Melody nodded, silently agreeing to the plan. The two of them bent with their heads touching, barley breathing out the words. A person inches from the kneeling forms would never be able to hear the words they said.
Melody climbed out of the cart holding her shoulder when they stopped for the night. Ian limped and grimaced as if he were constantly in pain.
“Were you injured in the shipwreck, my prince?” One of the battle surgeons asked Ian.
“It’s nothing, or nothing I need to see a surgeon about. I’ll rest the ankle and it will heal.”
“I would like to check for a broken bone, my prince.”
“You know I’ve had broken bones before, Surgeon Canile. This is just a sprain.”
“My son was never fond of surgeons, Canile,” King Fergus boomed. “Leave him be for now. I’ll assign a healer to look after him once we reach the palace.”
“I’ll be fine,” Ian said in a sharper tone than he had intended.
“Thank you for looking in on the prince,” Fergus said in a silky tone. “The princess may need your care. I want you to take a look; just to be safe.”
“She doesn’t like surgeons either.”
“She doesn’t have to like it but she does have to let Canile do his job.”
“Never fear, my prince,” Canile said. “I will be as gentile as possible.”
“You will be as thorough and as fast as possible. I want the princess’s health assured and then we need to be on our way.” Fergus’s words were orders.
“I won’t be examined in the open like this!” Melody said quickly.
“Waiting until we reach the boat seems reasonable,” Ian tried to smooth things over.
“I am king and my words are law! I will not wait until we reach Tamlyn Palace. Canile will not be returning to the palace with us. The examination must be done now!”
“Tomorrow,” Melody begged. “Please wait for tomorrow. I am so tired!”
Melody must know that Canile would see through her ruse. The king would watch them both like hawks if he knew that they were faking illness. Ian was impressed that Melody could get out of the examination while appearing weak at the same time.
“I see no harm in waiting until morning,” Canile agreed. “Let the Lady sleep.”
“The sooner it’s done the sooner it will be over,” Fergus said with finality. “Examine her now.”
Melody tensed but Canile was fast. “The girl’s soldier is sprained. I will make a sling for her.”
“She fought like a wild cat when we tried to take her,” a young knight with a blond bearded said. “I’m not surprised she hurt herself.”
“I told you to be gentle!” The captain’s voice barked.
“We did the best we could, captain but she would not come peaceably.”
“Do not blame the good knight, captain,” the king ordered. “I can tell you first hand that this Lady can be a little rambunctious.”
Melody looked like she was about to cry but Ian could see that it was all an act. There was wonder behind her eyes. “My shoulder hurts,” she said. “I want to rest.”
“This way, my Lady.”
Knights brought her to a tent surrounded by guards. The tent was hardly big enough to crawl into. Foot soldiers were given more spacious accommodations.
“I’ll need a bit of privacy,” Melody said.
“You’ll have to wash up in the woods,” the captain said. “I’ll have my best knights escorte you.”
“That’s kind of you but I’m sure I can manage.”
“I insist,” the captain said before the king could open his mouth in a rage.
Melody did her best to look around the woods while she performed her daily ablutions. She knew where to go when the moon rose high and the camp slept. Melody and Ian each ripped the back of their tent and crawled into the cover of trees. The guards were so busy watching the front of the tent that they did not even bother with the back. They were both able to slip away and meet by a creek.
“Are you hurt?” Ian asked when he saw her without a sling. “Can you travel?”
“I’m fine,” Melody insisted. “My shoulder does not hurt at all.”
“Canile will insist that I owe him for this,” Ian grumped. “He never does anything for nothing.”
“Canile will be the least of our problems if we doesn’t get moving.”
They both began to move towards the moon when they stopped dead.
“Do you see that?” Ian asked her.
“How did we miss it before?”
“It’s a red commit,” Ian could not help but state the obvious.
“Iíve never seen anything like it,” Melody breathed in wonder. “Iíve never seen a star that turned the world red.”
She was right, Ian saw; the star gave everything beneath it a red glow. Stars and commits were far from rare. There were scientists who made their living charting the stars and making equations to predict the appearance of commits. None of those commits changed the colors of the earth beneath them. This commit was powerful!
Running feet pounded the leaf-strewn behind them but the feet stopped suddenly, stunned by the red star.
Ian looked around in fear. The running knights had not spotted him or Melody. There was still time to get away. “This way,” Ian whispered to Melody, gently pulling her arm towards the hill country. “Thereís still time to get away.”
“We can’t hide in the hill country!” Melody said in alarm. “No one can find their way out!”
“People have returned,” Ian argued. “I grew up around here; just stay near me.”
“You stay near me! There are so many ways that this could go wrong.”
“I donít see any better options. Do you?”
“I’m running with you, aren’t I?” Sure enough, Melody was running. She sprinted after Ian, whose legs ate ground, and passed him in a matter of heart-beats. “Where to?”
Ian pointed to a hill that was almost tall enough to be a small mountain. “You see that shadow on the base of that mountain?”
Melody nodded. “That’s where we’re going?”
“There’s a cave there. It will be safe and dry. No one will be able to find us.”
“What about the Ysig brothers?”
“They haven’t been caught,” Ian reasoned. “We don’t need to worry about them.”
“We need their help,” Melody clarified. “How are if going to find them if they can’t find us?”
Ian thought quickly and had a plan but we wasn’t sure that now was the time to reveal it. “I’ll tell you once we reach the cave. Just focus on getting there.”
Melody took off at a sprint, running for all she was worth. Her haste made her forget how treacherous the hill country can be. Melody fell right into a bog. The water was muddy and heavy. It pulled her down and soaked into her gown and hair.
“Welcome, sister,” the spirit in the bog sang: It has been long… so long… since we’ve had a guest.”
Melody tried to call out in fear but mud just filled her mouth. She could not breath, much less speak! She jumped, trying to push herself up and out of the water but her heavy dress held her down. The fabric had seemed airy but water weighted more than she had expected. It held her to the floor. She couldn’t get air! She couldn’t…
A hand reached into the bog and pulled her out. Melody sucked in air, gasping and coughing as her head broke the surface of the water. The helping hand released her. Melody turned her head to thank her rescuer. Ian’s worried eyes gazed down at her but Melody only saw the men coming up behind Ian.
“Your fatherís men have found us! Run!” Melody tried to warn him. Ianís only response was to try pulling Melody to her feet. The gownís weight and her own weariness held her down. “I canít run. You have to go!”
“Iím not leaving you,” Ian swore.
“Donít be a fool! Get help!”
“Who would I go to? Your father?”
Melody felt anger rise with her fear. “Stop arguing and go!” Melody knew that it was too late even as the words left her mouth. Strong arms reached around Ian while other reached for Melody. She acted without thinking; rolling back into the bogís waters.
“Sister! You have returned!” The waterspirit sang. “It has been so long and your colors taste so sweet. No one has shared with us in soooo long.”
Melody tried to open her mouth, weather to beg for help, ask questions or simply breathe, she could not remember. Her chest ached with the need of air. Still, she forced herself to stay still and not to fight the waterís hold. The surface would give her air but it would take her freedom. These spirits were not a threat but the knights above were.
The form of the spirit became clear. It vaguely resembled a man and it had a seaweed necklace in its hand. The spirit slipped the necklace around Melodyís neck and the girl found that she could breathe. Melody greedily sucked in breath after breath.
“My friend is trapped up there! He needs help!”
“What could we do for him? He is not in our waters,” the spirit tried to explain.
“You have to do something! There are so many of youÖ” Melody did not know anything of war but surely numbers did matter!
“They will not kill him; your friend is the kingís heir. We spirits will wait and rescue him when the odds are in our favor. No one will harm the One-eyed Kingís son.”
“How do you know him?” Melody asked in surprise.
“We watch the house of Fergus of Sirle very carefully. We are in his land after all! His wife was one of us. She went to the surface and sacrificed herself to the endless horizonÖ It is a sad tale. Orphelia made protections for her son. We have looked after him and can move in if his life is in danger. There are pools at the castle and a magic mirror in the princeís room.”
“You can help him then?”
“Once he gets to the palace,” the spirit confirmed.
“The king is not taking Ian to Sirleís palace,” Melody told the spirit in a sad voice. “Theyíre going to Tamlyn Palace. Fergus seemed very insistent on that. Ian even commented on it.”
“Tamlyn was once used as a summer palace. It will take time and work but we will prepare the pools there. Our people made Orphelia a promise when she agreed to go to the king and argue our case. We will do all we can to protect her son.”
“Does Ian know about Orphelia? Does Fergus?”
“The king learned the truth before Ianís birth. I do not think that King Fergus has told his son the truth. We have been watching carefully for Ian to show signs of his motherís power. He has never looked for it or for us. None of the waterspirits can say if that is because of ignorance or disinterest.”
The spirits sun around something like a fire as it talked. The glowing, flickering, light tried to illumine the dark of the sea floor but it only marginally succeeded. Roots of carol and bands of rocks were not visible through the dark even though Melody knew they were there. Melody lifted the heavy rock to get a better look at this thing like fire.
“How does a rock flicker like that?”
“The same way that carol grows in a marshy bog,” was the spirits only answer.
Melody could since the melancholy mood of the spirits and she could guess the source.
“Ian would have come to you if he knew.”
“No one can know the mind of a prince.”
~**~
At that moment, Ian was slumped between two knights who held his arms in vice-grips. He had kicked at them and screamed when they had first grabbed him but he settled when he saw that Melody was free. She had not abandoned him. She had seen that the best thing she could do was flee. Melody was just one more thing that Fergus could hold over Ian’s head. Fergus would use them against each other and make them hate one another. It was best for Melody to be gone… It was safest for them both… That was what Ian kept telling himself.
The captain came for Ian, just as the prince knew he must. Ian shifted his weight nervously when the captain motioned to the knights watching over him. Ian’s arms were released and he shifted again more for something to do than to keep his balance.
“Do you know where the lady was going?” The captain said.
“I told her to hide,” Ian admitted. “She probably got lost in the hill country.”
“She’s not lost, my prince. The princess went into a bog and never came out. Have your people been in contact with you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“I’m sorry that this is necessary, my prince,” the captain said as he wound rope around his wrists.
“My father’s orders?”
“This is for your own safety.”
“I am the king of Sirle’s heir,” Ian reminded the captain. “How can I not be safe in Sirle?”
“Your father will answer that when we get back to the camp.”
Ian could do nothing but travel with the captain back to camp. Ian expected his father to scold him but Fergus relied more on physical lessons. He gave Ian a forceful punch with magic and fists alike. The punch snapped Ianís head back and made him taste blood. He lost his footing and fell. Blackness took him then. He went from falling into air to falling into nothingness. Ian woke some time later in the back of a carriage.
The carriage bumped along and Ian knew that they were still traveling through the forests. Roads would have been much smoother. The curtains of the carriage were drawn. Ian wanted to open those curtains and gaze out at the world around him but his hands were tied behind his back. “Father must still be upset with me,” Ian said aloud to the empty air around him in the stuffy carriage.
At sunset, Fergus came to his son. Ian was disappointed to see that Fergusís eyes matched his hair, both as dark as winter solstice. Fergus was still in a rage. Ian should tread carefully but he could not stop himself from saying,
“I am not sorry.”
“That has been clear for some time. Iím not here for an apology; Iím looking for an explanation.”
“I donít know if I can help you. I hardly know what happened.” Ian wanted to say that his father shouldnít hit him in the head before asking these things but he was able to stop his tongue. He would bite his tongue until it bled if that would help Melody.
“Where did the girl go?”
“I’m sure that Captain Kalin already told you that she went into the bog.”
“Did you send her into the bog?”
“No! I would not send her to drown!” Ian voice broke at the words. He did his best not to choke on emotion. Ian had not let himself think in Melodyís disappearance but he took comfort from the fact that Fergus was still looking for her. The bog must let out somewhere. Ian took a breath and continued, “I told her to run into the hill country. She did not want to get lost.”
“What kept you from running?”
“Melody fell and I stopped to help her.”
Fergus peered at Ian with both his eye and the eye that was no more. Ian felt the rush of magic push into him and force out truth. He saw the reason for the spell when Fergus spoke: “Do you have anything else to tell me?”
“I have given you all the answers I know but I was told to ask you about safety.”
“Safety? What are you on about?”
“Captain Kalin tied my hands. I asked if it was your orders that made him do it. Kalin said it was for my own safety. He said that you could explain more at camp.”
“There has been some uncertainty in Sirle,” Fergus began. “Courtiers think on your mother and they ask too many questions about red stars.”
“What about my mother? What does she have to do with this?”
“You know she wasÖ” Fergus searched for words before deciding on “from a foreign land. The courtiers are convinced that she was a noble with lands and titles. They see conspiracies and tricks at every turn. Magicians have been quoting prophesies of that red star before you were born and all the lore has shifted into legends.”
“Tell them the truth and the talk will go away,” Ian said in a voice that made it clear that he did not see the problem.
Fergus walked out of the carriage without saying a word.
~**~
“Father was right, Thurrin,” Craten said as he looked up from a book.
“Right about what?”
“About the dragon. We need to find one.”
“Iím not following after that bard again!”
“We need to find the bard first,” Syon argued.
“You donít need to go looking for dragons or bards,” Craten assured him.
“Then how am I supposed to find a dragon?”
“Call my name,” a deep, resonating voice said, “and I will come.” A dragonís head stuck out of the highest branches. Both men tried not to jump.
“The Babilarus scrolls I found told me the red starís nameÖ Itís the name for dragon.”
“The commit is you?” Thurrin asked the red beast with incredulity.
“The commit belongs to meÖ or it used to. I belong to myself.”
Thurrin wanted to ask more questions but the dragon could kill Thurrin like a fly with the flick of a taloned foot. Still, imagine what a dragon could do to Regus Arram! The risk might be worth it.
“Travel south,” the dragon commanded.
“But I have just come north.”
“South! Follow the star.” The commit appeared in the sun-lit sky now.
“Iíll ride to the end of the world but I cannot make magic from nothing.”
“Then go home and be what you always were,” the dragon suggested.
Thurrin saw the face of his father and his brother and he knew that there was only one choice. He saddled his horse.
“I will take care of father and of Ysig Island,” Craten promised. “You just focus on being safe.”
“You know I’ll come back. I always come back.”
“I know you’ll come back,” Craten confirmed, “but I want to make sure you make it in one piece.”
Syon stood beside Craten then. “No. I cannot travel with you, Knight of Glavinore. I need you here.”
“I owe you a debt,” Syon Med told him. “I will protect your isalnd and your brother to repay that debt but I should warn you that your brother will not be hapy with this.”
“He’ll survive and that’s what counts. Fergus od Sirle, Regus Arram of Glavinore and a Mad Bard are all after my brother. You’re the only one who can face all three foes and live to tell the tale.”
Thurrin road off into the distance. They had traveled south for several hours when Thurrin realized that he knew almost nothing about this mission. So he filled the time by asking questions of the dragon.
“What will I find if I follow the star?”
“You will find what the bard seeks,” the dragon promised.
“If King Fergus of Sirle looking for it too?”
“Fergus of Sirle sent the bard.”
“The bard seems to be playing a game of her own,” Thurrin remarked.
“I believe that the bard of Sron is keeping things from the king of Sirle.”
“I thought bards could not lie.”
“She has a way of manipulating truth,” the dragon amended.
“Would Fergus fight against her if he knew?”
“She would still be against you.”
“There’s only one thing for it, then,” Thurrin decided. “I’ll find the star before she does.”
“You’ll have to ride quickly. Follow me as best you can. Call if I need to slow down.”
“What do I call you? Dragon?”
“My full name cannot be pronounced in the human tongue.” The dragon thought a moment. “You may call me Roland. My mother used to call me by that pet name long ago.”
“Lead on, Roland. I’ll do my best to keep up.”
The dragon flew on wings of fire and lit the way to the south. Thurrin’s horse followed it and quickly turned silver with a sheen of sweat. The horse was black but now its color seemed once green like grass and then orange as sunset. The wet surphace reflected the color around it and began to make a simple horse into something else. The legs of the horse seemed to have wings, it flew so fast!
Thurrin followed the dragon south until three peaks came into view. They had ridden through swamps, hill country and even forests but these peaks each held a whole ecosystem all on their own. Each peak was topped with a series of hot springs.
“Are we going to the peaks?” Thurrin asked the dragon with awe in his voice. He longed to see the peaks and the strange plants around the pool! No one from Ysig had traveled so far in generations.
“We will have to climb them but the peaks are not our final destination.”
Thurrin felt his heart leap. He would be able to see the peaks and the pools on them. He doubted that Roland would let him stop to look around but a small glimpse was all he needed! He could thwart the bard of Sron’s plans, stop Fergus of Sirle, save his friends and his island all while seeing the peaks. This dragon’s plan made since to Thurrin even if nothing else did.
“What is the final destination? Are we really traveling to a star?”
“We are traveling to where that star came from.”
“We’re traveling to space? I don’t think that’s possible…” Thurrin didn’t want Roland to see how confused he was but the only way to get out of ignorance is to admit it.
“What makes you think the commit comes from space?”
“Where else would it come from?”
“Let me show you.”
A hole opened on the horizon showing a path of birds. It flew over trees and oceans and even mountains. Thurrinís mind told him that no one else could see this scene before him but he could not guess how he knew any of this. The bird seemed to stop and to show Thurrin a secret. There were ruins; crumpling ruins of some ancient peoples from a faraway place that lived long ago.
“The star came from those ruins?” Thurrin could not hide his disbelief.
“Those ruins gave birth to the red star. Or rather, something hiding in those ruins did. Fergus of Sirle hid his heart in those ruins and the taint of his heart made the red star. His hatred morphed into something living and the live thing became the commit.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“I have Fergus of Sirleís other eye.”
Thurrin felt his body freeze in shock. Thatís way Fergus only has one eye and thatís why he has magic. “Did Fergus make a deal with you, an eye for magic? Or did you steal the eye?”
“My fatherís father made a deal with Fergusís grandfatherís grandfather. The magic of ages would come to the house of Sirle for every generation that the dragons lived. I saw wickedness in Fergusís heart and tried to take the magic. Fergus gave up his heart and his eye to keep his power.”
“If we destroy Fergusís heart will he die?”
“His magic, and hopefully the star it created, will end. The bard taught Fergus how to do all of thisÖ How to separate his heart from his bodyÖ How to riddle with dragonsÖ She is the dangerous one.”
“How do we stop her?”
“Destroying the commit will diminish her power. Your brother will have to trap her with his own magic then.”
“What!”
“Her magic will be weak while his is strong. He will not have trouble beating her even though he does not have the training.”
“Iím not getting Craten caught up in this!”
“He will not be in danger.” The dragon tried to comfort Thurrin. “He will not be alone in his fight.”
“I would still be happier if he was safe at home but I know that Craten wonít run from a fight. He might run towards it. Iíll have to work to keep him from doing anything precarious.”
“Craten is going to be involved weather you want him to be or not. Fergus of Sirle wonít just let him sit at home.”
Thurrin had almost forgotten about the king of Sirle. He remembered the flash of fear in Craten’s eyes when the One-Eyed King took him away. Thurrin felt anger burn in his throat as he thought of the king. He remembered the taste of the hopelessness he felt as he watched his brother being taken. He never wanted to feel that way again and Thurrin was willing to risk war to do it. Thurrin had fought Regus Arram and he could fight Fergus of Sirle if he had to.
“I will deal with Fergus before he gets anywhere near Craten!”
“You have the heart of a warrior but your heart may not be enough. Use your mind and think before you act! Fergus cannot be defeated with a sword. His weapon is magic; his weapons are words and whiles. You cannot cut down words with a sword.”
“Fergus is a strategist and a paranoid one at that. He would never rely on one plan. Fergus would make many different plans using different weapons. I will watch Craten’s back with my sword and offer what help I can,” Thurrin swore.
“Craten’s greatest protection will be Fergus’s weakness. Destroying the heart will also be destroying Fergus’s magic and protecting Craten all at once.”
“How do we get to those ruins?”
“We need to reach the peaks and then swim to the bottom of the springs. There is an air-pocket with a cave it in there. The cave has a path that leads to the ruins.”
“The bird got there by flying,” Thurrin pointed out.
“The bird was magic and magic is the only path to the ruins.”
Thurrin felt his pulse speed and his blood rush. He would not only get to see the springs on the peaks but also get to swim in them! The trip to the peaks seemed to take the blink of an eye. Thurrin was vaguely aware of jutting rocks and fallen trees that should have slowed him but he walked as if on air. His feet were weightless and they glided over obstacles. He could only hope that the trip in the pools proved to be as smooth.
“There will be magic in the pools. Don’t be distracted by anything you see. They are auroras and illusions; nothing real,” Roland warned.
“I understand,” Thurrin promised. “I won’t stop.”
Thurrin took the seaweed necklace that the dragon had provided and jumped into the dark water. He had no problems breathing but Roland had made it sound like air would be the least of his problems. Thurrin kept his eyes open for tricks. He was hearted to see glowing rocks along the edge of the lake. Being blind in the darkness would not be a problem. The glowing rocks provided plentiful light.
Thurrin feared that the light would only allow him to be tricked more easily. Ignoring a distraction that no one could see would be simple but avoiding a distraction from a centuries-old trickster would prove more difficult still. Thurrin only prayed that they would not show him Craten. He worried for his brother and the need to help him might be too great to ignore.
Thurrin needn’t have worried over that. He saw a large shadow moving towards him and did his best to ignore it. The hairs on the back of Thurrin’s neck began to rise so suddenly that his skin began to prickle beneath them. Something deep within Thurrin said that this wasn’t an illusion but Roland had warned him that the tricks would be convening. Thurrin continued swimming and contemplated closing his eyes.
He was glad that he kept them open because a second later Roland was in the water beside him.
“This is not illusion,” the dragon warned. “That is a leviathan, my people’s greatest enemy. Keep swimming and get to the cave path as quickly as you can. I will distract the leviathan.”
Thurrin wasn’t sure if he should believe anything he saw. Anything could be an illusion. But the dragon’s advice was good weather the dragon was real or not. Thurrin continued swimming.
To his right, the dragon and the leviathan were doing battle. The dragon slashed at the leviathan. The leviathan returned the attack with his jaws, its teeth digging into Roland and making his tail slash. The tail caught the leviathan and pushed him away. Bubbled and foam blinded Roland and the leviathan used his confusion to attack. The tentacles of the leviathan wrapped around Roland and began to squeeze. Roland couldn’t breathe so the leviathan pulled him into the depths.
Thurrin was not watching any of this. He was focused on getting to the cave and actively trying to avoid any distractions that might come along. He did not see his friend fall but he knew what had happened when he entered the caverns and found himself alone.
~**~
Ian wished that he could ignore the carriage around him. The dark interior was all he had seen for days now. His father had come in to visit him twice now. Fergus had asked Ian the same questions over and over again. Ian had not known what answers to give him. Fergus had come for a third visit.
“We’ve been through all of this before,” Ian reminded his father. “Are you expecting different answers?”
“You’re keeping something from me, Ian. You used to tell me everything but you’ve changed as you grew. I can no longer see into the secret corners of your mind.”
“The answers wouldn’t change even if you could see into my mind as you used to. You know everything I do. What is in the bog that you fear?”
“There is death in that place.”
“Melody didn’t die there.”
“What makes you think that?”
“You wouldn’t still be looking for her if she had died,” Ian reasoned.
“I don’t think the girl knows what’s in the bog,” Fergus finally admitted.
“Do you know what’s in the bog?”
Fergus thought for a moment before telling him, “Your mother knew.”
Ian waited for the rest but Fergus did not say a word. He only stood up and walked out of the carriage.
The group made it to Tamlyn Palace by evening the next day. Ian was never so happy to see court yard walls. He was not looking forward to living in a gilded prison but his heart leapt at feeling sunlight. He did not want to think about how long he had been stuck in the carriage. The palace would be a prison but it would certainly be less confining than the carriage. Ian still imagined escaping.
“Welcome back to Tamlyn Palace, my lords,” the house steward greeted.
Ian had never met this steward but Fergus clearly recognized the man. “Thank you, Stevens. Please see that my son gets settled into his rooms.”
“Right away, my king. Rooms have been prepared for the lady as well.”
“I’m afraid that the lady will not be joining us.”
Ian was led away before he could hear more. Stevens lead him to a room without a door. The two of them just walked into a shadow and landed in this room. Ian doubted that the shadows would let him leave alone. Captain Kalin was in the room waiting for him.
“My prince, I’m sure that you’re curious about your father’s plans. The king has always looked to the future. That is what makes him a good leader.”
“Melody is gone; my father’s plans have failed and he may as well let me go.”
“The king of Sirle never relies on one plan.”
Ian should have expected such a thing but his father always seemed to surprise him. “Alright. Tell me about my new role in Sirle.”
“The king has planned a glorious reckoning,” Kalin began. “Sirle will go to war with Umbria. No agreement can be made through marriage so the only option left is war.”
“No,” Ian breathed in shock.
“The king in Umbria has refused to meet with us so we only have one option. Umbria could get lost in the wilderness of Sirle. They lack resources, money, men and training. Sirle will rise victorious with a minimal loss of life.”
“Minimal loss of life?” Ian parroted. “How many Umbrians will die?”
“Men die every day. As a king, you will see that. Your father wants to teach you to be a king while you are here.” Ian tried not to roll his eyes. “He will begin your lessons after breakfast. You will eat together and will entertain visiting nobles as part of your lessons.”
“I’m hardly a child and there is no need for classes. I will watch and learn.”
“You will do as your father commands or you will never leave this room,” Kalin promised.
“I’m still not allowed to leave this palace?” Ian knew the answer before he asked the question but he needed to hear the words.
“You are safest in the palace and cannot be put at risk. You will stay in the palace walls but you will be allowed to walk the courtyard if you do well in your lessons.”
“And my first lesson?”
“Begins tomorrow. Get some rest. A dinner will be brought to you.”
With that, Kalin turned on his heel and left the room. He walked into a shadow and disappeared. Ian tried to follow after but the shadows did not swarm around him the way they did for Kalin. Ian tried to leave the room over and over again until his father entered the room. Time seemed to move differently in the small space. Ian had not realized that night had passed into day.
“I expect you to be ready for lessons each day,” the king said in a cold voice. “Get out of your travel-worn tunic and into the velvet doublet.”
“I can’t leave this room. Why should I get dressed up?” Ian pulled on tunic and doublet as he spoke.
The king sighed. “This room was built for your protection. You can’t leave unless Captain Kalin or I am with you. No one else can force you out of this place.”
“What are you trying to protect me from?”
“Sirle has enemies. As heir you are Sirle’s greatest asset and our enemies will be looking for you.”
“In Tamlyn Palace?” Ian challenged. “Who knows we’re here?”
“Word gets out. People see the red commit in the sky and their hearts quake with fear.”
“Won’t that just trap your enemy in this room with me? Give me some way of escaping!”
“You will have other ways to defend yourself. Come, it is time for your lesson.”
Ian followed his father out, letting shadows wrap around him, and finding himself standing before a mirror with his father. The mirror gave everything in the room a subtle blue outline. Ian looked closer at the mirror and saw faces in the reflections of vases and tables. One face almost looked like Melody. Ian wanted to stay there longer and study the faces but Fergus stopped him.
“Stop staring at your own reflection. We are already late.”
Clearly, Fergus had not seen the same things Ian did. Ian wanted to believe that he had seen Melody but part of his mind said that he was just over-tired. Ian followed his father away from the mirror.
~**~
“Why isn’t he coming?” Melody asked with sorrow in her voice.
“We cannot send out a full signal. Fergus of Sirle will be able to see us if we do.”
“How can we save Ian then?”
“We can send help him travel through the mirror; his mother’s power is still strong, but we have to wait until Ian is alone. We cannot risk Fergus of Sirle’s wrath.”
The waterspirits had assured Melody that they could save Ian. They would show him the mirror and he would be able to walk in. Clearly that had not worked. Ian was right there in front of her but still out of reach. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream or cry.
“I thought Orphelia was more important than that.”
“No one is giving up but Fergus is a focused general and a terrible enemy. We need to be practical. We will only have one chance to save Ian and we cannot waste it.”
Melody took a deep breathe. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. Thank you for helping both of us.”
“We are sworn to protect Orphelia’s child and you are part of him. We saw his or when you looked at us.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“I forgot how young you are.”
“I thought I became an adult when my family planned my marriage but I still have so much to learn.”
“There is no reason to be ashamed of your youth. Experience will come soon enough.” The waterspirit did not want to tell Melody the specifics of what was to come. One so young should not have so much weight on the shoulders. There was only one thing the little spirits could do to help. “We need you to make us a promise.”
“Anything.”
“Do not make promises lightly. Simply say yes or no and keep your word.”
“Yes, I will do my best,” Melody said with proper severity.
“If anything happens to you in a place far from us, you must call for Hexel.”
Melody looked at them in surprise. “I know Hexel. She taught me once a long time ago.”
“There is not one person who could be of more help.”
“What do you imagine will happen?”
“Best to plan for even the worst circumstance. I was taught never to give quarter, weather on the battlefield, the classroom or the pound.”
“You make it sound like the world itself is a battlefield.”
“I fear that you will soon learn that anything and everything can turn into a fight.”
“Ian doesn’t know. Send me through the mirror!”
“We can’t send anything through the mirror, be they words, ideas or people, until Ian is alone; but you may be right. Words and messages get muddled in a mirror but you can go through and make sure that he understands. Orphelia’s son trusts you.”
“Just keep an eye on Ian. I’ll be ready when it’s time.”
~**~
It did not take long for Thurrin to realize that he was lost. The caverns went on and on and Roland was nowhere to be seen. Thurrin remembered the battle that he had glimpsed. He wanted to think that the whole thing was an illusion but Roland would have been here if he could be. Something had happened…
Thurrin walked around the caverns, hoping to find something familiar; a fresh breath of air, the flicker of sun and fire. There were signs to the surface. Thurrin just had to find them.
Fire flickered on the fall wall and Thurrin followed it almost hypnotically. He was so focused on the fire that he did not notice the woman sitting beside it.
“You look lost,” the woman said. “You have that panicked look in your eye that only really lost people seem to get.”
“I… I suppose I am,” Thurrin admitted.
The woman looked at him as if she could see right through him. Thurrin rubbed his hands on his coat, trying to get them clean. He knew that rubbing dirty hands on a dirty tunic would only make them both dirty all over again but he had to do something.
“I can help you with that,” the woman told Thurrin. “I can be really helpful with stuff.”
“With what?”
“Your hands and with finding your way.” She handed him a clean cloth and a small bowl of water. “I could help you get to the surface too. I’m on my way there now and it would be no trouble if you just wanted to follow.”
“This path is supposed to be made of magic.”
The woman smiled. “Magic is meant to be seen.”
Thurrin saw her clearly then for the first time. “You’re Hexel the magic-user!”
“I am Hexel and I know how to see magic. Everyone should know how to see it but so many people forgot.”
“I’ve heard that tale but I can’t remember where. Did you tell it when you came to my father’s court?”
“I am no one important, prince, but people like to tell stories, even when they’re not important. You need to remember the things people like if you want to be a good prince.”
“I am no prince. Ysig Island is no longer a kingdom.”
“I thought you were here to change that,” Hexel said. “You could declare yourself king and make Regus Arram wear a silly hat. You could walk around with normal clothes and look really regal.”
“I wanted revenge on Regus Arram when I first left the island but things have changed. A bard tricked everyone in each of the eleven kingdoms! Sirle is working with her to go to war against Umbria. Glavinore won’t come to Umbria’s aid because the bard is there too. She has taken the queen and trapped her in a tower. A knight was sent to find her but now no one in Glavinore knows of Umbria’s blight. No one will know until it is too late!”
“That is quite a story but are you sure you have all the parts right? It sounds too incredible to be made up. But no one will believe the tale just the same.”
“It is true!”
“Then we have better hurry to the surface,” Hexel said in a clear voice. “It sounds like you’re the hero in this story.”
“I almost think you’re making fun of me.”
“Don’t take it personally. I make fun of everyone. I’ve lived too long to go through life without a little fun. This cave is lonely and I’ve been here too long. We’d better go before I lose my mind.”
Thurrin would be surprised if a major altercation didn’t take place within a week of Hexel’s arrival to the surface. There were rivalries between lords in each province but the skirmishes between kingdoms were always the worst. Nobles and peasants alike suffered in times of conflict and each side blamed the other. Someone else was always to blame.
“You’re not going to kill a king and start a war, are you?” He asked her in a cautious voice.
“Why would I want that? You just admitted to planning that very thing before leaving home. Regus Arram doesn’t need to be killed twice and it would take me too long to get beyond his kingdoms.”
“I wasn’t going to kill him! Just… get vengeance on him,” Thurrin’s voice got more cowed and lower in volume as he talked.
“How were you going to punish him? Throw bread at his head?”
“I wanted him to taste fire in the back of his throat the way I did when Glavinore fought Ysig.”
Hexel got quiet then. “Regus Arram took your home from you?”
“Regus Arram took my father’s mind and my brother’s leg and my people’s hope. He took the bread from our mouths and the shirt from our backs.”
“I don’t know if I can help you get revenge but I might be able to help you get justice.”
“I’ll take what I can get and be glad of it.”
“You might not feel that way for long. People tend to tire of me fairly quickly.”
“I’m sure that you’ll be preferable to Regus Arram.”
“I can’t be a king. Regus Arram will still rule Glavinore but you’ll rule Ysig Island.”
Thurrin frowned. “The islands aren’t a country. They haven’t been for decades.”
“Your islands would no longer be part of Glavinore. They would either be a country in their own right or part of a different country.”
“The kings of Glavinore used to train on Ysig Island in my grandfather’s time. Ysig was part of Glavinore because the king cared about the island. Ysig needs a king who cares for her and her people.”
“You could be that king,” Hexel pointed out.
“Ysig needs an army.”
“Armies come when leaders call. Can you be a leader?”
“I don’t want to risk of lives of my people. War is never pretty. It was a disaster…”
Hexel seemed to look into Thurrin before saying, “You care for your people, respect life, understand the horrors of war, and look to the good of others before your own. You will be a good king.”
Thurrin smiled. “Would I have to wear a silly hat?”
“Only if you wanted to.”
~Seven~
Ian tried to avoid the mirror. He had looked into it once and saw something he could not explain. It was something that scared him and hypnotised him. Ian’s feelings seemed to turn into twisting knots when he thought of the mirror and thinking of the mirror and his feelings of it gave him nothing but a headache.
Fergus had other activities to occupy Ian’s mind. Each day started with Fergus guiding Ian out of the doorless room and into the dining room. Fergus lectured Ian while they ate and went over the agenda for the day. Fergus would test his son at random times during the day by firing magic at him.
“Is this necessary?” Ian almost whined as he limped after his father.
“You need to think on your feet. There are always men trying to kill a king.”
“You told me I wouldn’t be safe here, but I did not think you’d be the one trying to do it.”
“I’m not trying to kill you,” Fergus said. “I’m trying to save your life.”
“What do you think will happen?” Ian asked.
“I’m not going to explain this again, Ian. Pay attention to your lessons. You can rest in the garden afterwards.”
“You’re trying to bribe me into dropping this,” Ian realized.
“I’m getting tired of your questions,” Fergus hissed. “You’ll learn more if you just listen.”
“I’m tired of listening. All I do is listen.”
“You wouldn’t be limping if you listened.”
The arguments continued each day until Fergus called for a festival. A ball would be held in the evening. Ian took to the opportunity to prolong freedom. He left the ball to his father and wondered around the palace. He hoped for an avenue of escape but was content just to be out of the doorless room. He planned on making his way to the kitchens where he might find a way out but he ended up in front of the strange mirror instead.
Ian looked at it closely and saw shapes that were not in the room with him. “Melody?” He whispered in an unbelieving voice. “How are you here? Did father find you?”
Melody’s mouth moved as if she were speaking but Ian did not hear any words. He hoped that she could hear his words. He pointed to his ear and shrugged his shoulder, trying to tell her. Melody must have understood. She left the mirror for a second and came back with a chalk board.
“You walk through the mirror,” she wrote in hurried strokes.
“What?” Ian didn’t know how to explain how confused he felt.
“Use power,” Melody wrote next.
“What power?” This wasn’t at all how Ian had imagined their reunion. Ian wanted her to know that he was coming for her and had worried for her. “My father is distracted. I’m going to leave through the kitchen. You don’t need to worry about any mirror. Can you even hear me?”
“No kitchen,” Melody wrote but that seemed to be the only explanation she was going to give.
“Where do I go then? How do I get out?”
“Use mirror,” she wrote again.
“I don’t know how, Melody.”
She seemed to be frustrated too now. She moved from foot to foot and took deep, calming breathes.  “Wait for me,” she wrote finally.
Ian wanted to argue but the harsh click of footsteps told him that the conversation was over.
“Ian!” Fergus called, “What are you doing there?”
“Just… Just looking for some quiet, father.”
“A host cannot leave his own party to look for a few quiet moments,” Fergus chided.
“You’re right,” Ian conceited, wishing only to stop the argument. “I’ll be a better host in the future.”
“There are still a few young maidens waiting for a dance. It is your duty as host to ask them.”
Ian knew when he was being dismissed. He left before his father had a chance to remember to punish him. The truth was that Fergus was busy thinking about the mirror, his wife and the waterspirits.
“I know what you are,” Fergus hissed at the mirror. “You have my heart but you can’t have my son!”
Fergus drew his sword, wanting to attack something, not knowing that the greatest threat to Ian rested in his own thoughts. Fergus had been young once but he could not remember it. He knew what it was to be a father but he could not remember being a son. Fergus had ignored his responsibility for years but he would be there for his son. Ian was dancing but he could not stop thinking about the mirror.
Ian knew that his father’s words were orders and not a request. Ian returned to the dance but his mind kept moving back to the mirror. Melody said to wait but to wait for what? The message said to wait for her but surely Melody would not risk coming… would she?
Ian knew he could not take the risk that she would. He would return to the mirror and warn her. Returning was a risk but not compared with Melody’s plan. Her rescue attempt could only end in disaster. He left the party as soon as the music stopped and made his way to the mirror.
“Melody!” Ian whispered fiercely. “Don’t come! Do you hear? Don’t come!” Ian waited for Melody’s image to form but the mirror’s surface never changed. “Melody!” Ian tried again. He got on his knees, ready to try a new tactic, when his father and the guards’ of Sirle burst through the door.
“I thought we discussed this, Ian. This mirror is dangerous!”
“You don’t understand!” Ian tried to explain but Fergus motioned to guards.
“You’re possessed by an idea! I’m ending this now!” Fergus took a shield from the guard beside him and slammed it into the mirror. Spider webs of cracks began to form where the shield struck.
“No!” Ian tried to move between his father and the mirror but guards intercepted him and held him back. “Melody is in there! Stop!”
“Kalin, take him to his room.” Kalin moved to follow his king’s orders but Ian kicked out to stop him.
His heart hammered as he fought against him. “Listen to me! Please!” Kalin pulled Ian along but the younger man continued trying to talk with his father. “Don’t break the mirror! Melody will be trapped!”
“The girl is not in the mirror, my prince,” Kalin tried to comfort him but the hold on his arms never loosened.
“I saw her. She’s trapped!”
“The mirror is only a window,” Kalin said in the same, calm voice. “No one is trapped.”
“Your girl is gone,” Fergus said in a snapping voice, “just like your mother. Those monsters took them both! The things in the water called them and ate their love.”
Ian looked at his father in confusion. “My mother died while traveling… That’s what you always told me. It was all a simple accident. What really happened to my mother? What happened to Melody?”
“The Lady Melody was not the first to fall into a bog,” Kalin explained. “Your mother the queen came out of a bog. She escaped from monsters to bring us beauty but the monsters took her back one day.”
“Orphelia had nightmares that they would take her back. She warned me of her fears but I wouldn’t listen.” Fergus sounded close to tears.
“What are you two talking about?” Ian was shaking. He remembered the stories he had heard as a boy. His mother had grown up across the sea and had told him nothing of monsters. All her stories were bright and full of magic. Ian remembered a golden childhood full of beauty and happiness. This talk of monsters and nightmares seemed alien like the red light from above.
Fergus motioned to Ian and spoke to Kalin. “Get Ian into his room while I finish here. I’ll tell you the whole thing there where we have privacy.”
“I’m not moving until you tell me,” Ian insisted.
“Do not make a scene, my prince,” Kalin hissed in Ian’s ear.
Fergus motioned two other guards forward and the three of them forced Ian into the hallway where Kalen pushed Ian into the red-tinged shadows. He seemed to fall into his room in an instant. Kalin was right behind him.
“Tell me, Captain,” Ian ordered.
“That is your father’s place.”
“My father had plenty of chances to talk with me and he didn’t tell me anything!”
Fergus seemed to materialize before him instantly before saying, “I loved your mother, Ian, but she was not human.”
Ian’s eyes widened in shock. “What else would she be?”
“Your mother came from the bog,” Fergus reminded his son. “Her people lived in pools of water that looked like puddles. They used magic to trick people into entering their world and then used lies to keep them trapped.”
“You said Melody went there too.”
“You saw her fall into a pool that should not have been deep enough to cover her. She fell into the world of the waterspirits. They must have welcomed her as their own if those filthy scavengers are letting her use their mirrors. That king of theirs made the mirrors to mock your mother and now he uses it to torment you!”
“You told me that Melody is not in the mirror. Is she trapped in the bog?”
“The waterspirits move their kingdom in ways that I don’t understand. The lady could be anywhere.”
“Mother used to take me to the Hill Country,” Ian admitted. “It was supposed to be our secret. She showed me how to move between the swamps and where to find caves and tunnels. Let me go back to the Hill Country to search for Melody.”
“Your place is here,” Fergus argued.
“I am doing no good here! I’m either trapped in this room or following you like a shadow. Let me go where I can do something!”
Fergus’s eyes seemed to see something faraway and out of focus. “The waterspirits want you to come to them. That’s way they sent you images of the girl. They’re making a trap for you.”
“I won’t abandon her!”
“I’m not asking you to,” Fergus argued in a calmer voice. “I’m asking you to be smart. Think before you run head-long into trouble; make a plan.”
Ian gave his father a shrewd look. “You have a plan?”
“I’ve been planning for years, imaging what I would do to save your mother, what I would have done differently… I learned too late to save your mother but I can still save you.”
“I’m not in danger. Melody is.”
“I know this enemy,” Fergus argued. “Leave the fighting to me.”
~**~
“How do you find your way in here?” Thurrin asked in amazement.
“The path is made of magic so I used magic.”
“I never heard you utter a spell or read from a book of magic. How did you use magic without a spell?”
“Magic is in everything,” Hexel explained. “It is in the air we breathe and in the words we’re thinking right now. I don’t have to talk to tap into the magic. I know it’s there already.”
“I looked for magic all my life but I’ve never found any,” Thurrin mused. “My father read it in books and my brother insisted that it rested in each and every word but it always seemed to be a mystery to me. I could never find magic when I looked for it.”
“Then stop looking for it. You’ll find magic when you stop looking for one thing and find everything. Magic is not in what you see. Empty your mind and magic will find a way in.”
Thurrin tried to do as she instructed. He emptied his mind and stopped looking for a path. The world around him seemed to glow. Thurrin reached out a hand and touched Hexel, making sure that she was real. He felt her skin go cold with shock, as though someone had thrown a bucket of cold water. At the same time, something was unleashed, a sudden ?ash of wild magic that he had been holding in place without realizing it. As it dispersed, and the expression in her eyes changed, he knew that he had broken a spell he never knew he had cast.
He could see the path clearly. The trouble was that he could see something else just as clearly…
“This path is not leading us to the ruins… It’s taking us to Glavinore. Look at those banners.”
“No,” Thurrin argued. “Those are the ruins but Regus Arram has left his knights there.”
“He must have officially allied himself with Fergus of Sirle.”
“His wife had a hand in that, I imagine.”
Hexel nodded and saw a way to the heart. “We can go around them.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Don’t be a fool!”
“Glavinore’s knights are here,” he whispered in an urgent voice. “When else will I have a chance like this?”
“This is not a coincidence. Regus Arram does not know that this place exists. Fergus of Sirle must have sent him here. He must know that someone is after his heart. Regus and Fergus both know that we are coming and they are prepared.”
“I wouldn’t bet coin on that. When has a little thing like impossibility ever stopped us? Look over there.”
Hexel looked where he pointed. It looked like a fight was just beginning. The knights all wore the emblem of Glavinore but they fought each other as if their very lives depended on it. Indeed, it appeared that their lives may very well depend on the outcome of battle. Knights of every land found themselves in the same positions on a daily basis.
Hexel could not hide her surprise when Thurrin of Ysig joined the fray.
“You’re very troublesome, Ysig,” the knight said, as Thurrin began cautiously moving across the north end of the tunnel. “I should have killed you years ago, when I had the chance.”
“Aye, you should’ve done,” Thurrin replied, trying to catch his breath, hoping he could keep the knight talking while he figured out what he was going to do. Something was not right about this scene, not right about how the knight had treated his fellows. Thurrin didn’t want to think about it. He just wanted to fight but Hexel’s words were having some effect on him.
“This isn’t our fight, Thurrin!” Hexel yelled down to him. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“They’re my enemies, Hexel. I can’t just let them be!”
Hexel saw the truth a moment too late. “You’re under a spell, Thurrin!”
“I will fight the spell with my sword as soon as I deal with this scourge of Glavinore!” Thurrin swore.
“You can’t fight a spell with a sword, Thurrin! You have to use magic!”
Thurrin’s mouth went tight before he answered, “I can’t argue with you but unless you pick me up and make me, I will stay here and fight!”
“I cannot stay here, magic is singing to me. You cannot stay here. Your family and your island need you.”
He stepped away from the knight and dropped his sword. Glavinore’s knights no longer seemed to notice Thurrin now that he was not fighting. No one impeded Thurrin as he made his way to Hexel. She moved to look into his eyes. The long fall of her hair hid her face; he could not see it in her silence. Then she shook it back, looked up at him, her eyes quiet, weary with waiting.
“I should use magic of my own to make you leave. For your sake I would tie you to a horse and send you to your island, to your very doorstep. But for my sake, there is no place I want you but with me. Will you come to the ruins with me?”
“I will never leave you.” He drew her close to him until her head dropped forward onto his breast, and he smiled vaguely into the darkness, his lips brushing the top of her hair. She whispered against him,
“I am selfish. But there is one thing that I must tell you now: where I am going, in the end, I will go alone.”
“I thought you wanted me with you.”
“Oh, I do but I cannot always have what I want. I have seen what must be. We must retrieve Fergus of Sirle’s heart but you do not have to come with me.”
“I do have to come,” Thurrin argued. “I owe it to my brother and to the dragon Roland.”
“You will be gravely injured if you come with me.”
“Will I die?”
Hexel paused before telling him, “Your life will be forever changed.”
“I will come,” he insisted.
“Why?”
“Because there is only one thing worse than know every prophesy that comes into your head and that is not knowing.”
She lay awake that night with a thick cloak wrapped around her and great, cold worlds of fire splayed silent on the ground. She felt the steady pulse of warning in her mind, rippling through the silence, through the opened doors and corridors of her mind, moving downward, to the deep places where she kept the clear, cold knowledge of herself in her mind.
Hexel moved to do magic of her own then; magic that would change fate itself. She went through each layer of Thurrin of Ysig Island’s mind, removing something small here and placing it there instead. She made each change subtle and temporary. She wanted him to be waylaid, not harmed. There was little that could stop Thurrin of Ysig when he got stubborn but Hexel could think of one sure way.
When Thurrin of Ysig woke up, he would be blind.
Hexel wove rope that lead from Thurrin’s sleeping form to his horse. The horse was already spelled to take Thurrin to the shore. He would be able to see by then but the prince of Ysig would not know that. A few days of fear would spear him from a much worse fate.
Hexel was not sure how the prince had done it but in the few days that they had spent together, Thurrin of Ysig had made her care for him. She knew in her heart of hearts that she would do everything in her power to keep him safe.
She imagined that he would be furious with her when he woke but he just said in a calm, unwavering, unnerving voice, “You used the old magic, didn’t you?”
“It was the only thing that could save you. The rumors about it aren’t true. The human mind is far from complex in their view and the price they demanded was more than fair.”
“You went into my mind!” Anger seemed to turn into shock. “What price did the old ones ask of you?”
“One that I would gladly pay.”
“You think I’ll leave without a fight now?” Thurrin did not bother hiding his anger now. “Because you did this to me?”
“You can’t possibly think you’ll fight anyone in this condition. A wet noodle could force you to your horse. The horse will do the rest of the work. You don’t have to do anything at all.”
“I’m not running away, Hexel!”
Hexel saw no other choice. She called on her magic. “I’ll have to make you leave then.”
“You’ll either hurt yourself or hurt me. If either of those things happen, we’ll both be mad at each other and I’ll end up staying, either because you’ll be mad and won’t care if I die or I’ll be mad and won’t care if you’re upset.”
“This is serious, Thurrin! I’m not serious often but I know when to give truths.”
“Tell me what will happen.”
Hexel looked at him with squinted eyes, hoping to see something that Thurrin wasn’t telling her. “If I tell you, will you leave?”
“I don’t know yet… If it’s as terrible as you say I won’t have much choice.”
“Your spirit will be cursed to never go home,” Hexel warned him.
Thurrin laughed. “You put a curse on my horse! You made it so I can’t go anywhere but home.”
“I enchanted your horse and I can remove a spell. A curse cannot be removed. Your soul will be lost for all time. It would be worse than death, Thurrin! Death would eventually end.”
“You’re talking nonsense!”
“I haven’t even gotten started! Nascence is my business but you said you wanted to know. I have told you the whole of it.”
“You’re guessing, Hexel! Stop playing games and take your spell off me!”
“You need to leave.”
“I’m not leaving,” Thurrin said stubbornly.
“Fine! You stay here and I’ll leave.” Hexel moved to get up but Thurrin wrapped his arms around her, stopping Hexel in her tracks.
“I’m not leaving you because my place is beside you. We’re trapped here together. We can only leave together. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” Hexel answered, too shocked to cry or argue.
He looked at her silently, his eyes heavy, but oddly clear. He listened, Hexel knew. Thurrin had heard her many times but he didn’t always listen. Hexel could see that he was listening now. He gave a nod that might have been, to a watching eye, only the shift of light across his face.
He felt something fierce, dangerous, as magical as hope rouse within him at the motion, and he found that he could see again. He guided her to the horses.
~**~
Melody left the land of the waterspirits as soon as she saw Fergus of Sirle storm towards the mirror. She turned to the nearest spirit and demanded to be shown to the surface.
“Why would you want to leave?” The spirit asked in astonishment.
“My friend is in danger and I must go to help him. I need to go to the palace of Tamlyn in Sirle!”
“I will show you to the pool. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“There is no other way,” Melody tried to explain.
The waterspirit seemed to understand and showed Melody to a glowing path that lead up to a pool. Melody followed the path until she broke the surface and sputtered for breath. She pulled herself out of the water and could see the Tamlyn Palace rising in the east.
Melody walked towards it, not knowing what she would say when she made it to the door. She thought for a long time during her walk. She could not tell the knights who she truly was but she did not know what lie to give. Finally, she came to the answer. Melody would not go through the front door. She would sneak into the palace and find Ian before the guards found her.
With this plan in mind, Melody climbed onto the roof. She had snuck out of her home every now and then as a child. Climbing a roof and down a tree was not new to Melody. She moved with the dexterity of an experience climber and had no trouble peeking through windows unseen. Melody looked through five windows on the second floor before she saw a hallway littered with broken shards of a mirror. She climbed in through the window and waited in the shadows for Ian to appear.
Long hours passed before anyone at all appeared in the hall. Servants were the first to come and clean but they did have information.
“The king still won’t let him out?”
“No. Kalin has been bringing in his meals for three days now. The king goes in to speak with him once a day though. I don’t think that the prince has been forgiven.”
“Seeing them disappear into nothing still gives me goose pimples. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end.”
Melody was listening closely to their talk. Fergus and the captain disappeared with Ian into a shadow… Where were they keeping him? The even more pressing question would be how could she get there? How could she save Ian if he never left the prison? Fergus would have to let him out eventually… Wouldn’t he?
Melody tried to keep her thoughts from going in circles and from beginning lives of their own but monsters seemed to loom. She was so lost that she almost missed Ian’s sudden appearance with Captain Kalin.
“Does this unexpected visit mean that my father is ready to forgive me?” Ian’s voice was laced with a heavy dose of bitterness but Kalin pretended not to hear.
“I doubt my king sees any need for forgiveness. He is ready to work with you though.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready to work with him,” Ian admitted.
“I don’t know if you’ll have much of a choice.”
“There is always a choice.”
“Men like you and I know that phrases like that are rarely true,” Kalin’s voice had a touch of bitterness now.
“The two of you won’t tell me anything so I don’t see what else you would expect me to do. Let me go to the Hills to look for Melody. You can send guards and knights with me if you want to.”
“We’ve been through this before. You must trust your father and me.”
“The two of you don’t trust me.”
Kalin sighed. “Your father doesn’t want you to be involved in this fight unless you have to be.”
“It sounds like I’m already involved in the fight. My mother was the first victim according to my father. Melody got into this mess one way or another and I’m stuck here, trapped in a room without a door.”
“Be grateful for your father’s foresight. His planning has saved you and the whole kingdom.”
“Let him come to me if he’s so good at planning! I’m not getting trapped in another room!”
Kalin rolled his eyes. “Your father will not be happy to see another temper tantrum.”
Ian refused to dignify Kalin’s taunts with any response. He stood beside Kalin, silently steaming but not moving. He meant what he said and he would not make things easy on his father. Fergus of Sirle may trust his son but he was surely withholding information from him as well. Ian had no trouble imagining his father’s red angered face but the sight did not anger him. It only made him smile.
Ian’s smile vanished when he saw Melody immerge from the shadows.
“Melody!”
“Don’t look so surprised! I did tell you I was coming and now I am here.”
Ian was shaking his head. “Didn’t you hear my warnings? This is not a safe place for you. You need to leave.”
“I couldn’t just leave you,” Melody said the words but she never thought she needed to explain.
“I can’t let him hurt you. Please, leave now before it’s too late.”
“It’s dangerous for you too,” Melody reminded him.
“We’ll leave together.” Ian paused while he looked around and then asked, “How did you get in?”
“I climbed on the roof.”
Ian did not try to hide his surprise. “No one noticed you?”
“I have a skill or two of my own. Sneaking is not so hard when no one is looking up. Just step where I step and youíll be fine.”
Ian tried to take some of her confidence but he still felt his fatherís eyes on him with each step. Ian took a deep breath when the two of them made it to the cover of the forests. He felt like he had been running for hours but Melody looked as fresh as a daisy.
He smiled at her and Melody could not help smiling back. “You do have skill,” Ian admitted. “Thanks for coming back for me.”
Neither one of them knew that Fergus of Sirle had seen everything.
~**~
“Should I send the knights after them?” Captain Kalin asked from the shadows.
Fergus did not answer right away. He was looking in the silver bowl he often used for scrying and waiting for the waterspirits to appear. He had no doubt that Orpheliaís people would make themselves known soon enough. The red star in the sky was proof enough of that.
“Why would I send knights after Ian? He’s going just where I want him to.”
The captain looked at his king in confusion. “You sent for the prince, my king. How would you know that the lady would find him before the prince came to you?”
“You forget that Iíve fought with these waterspirits before. I know what theyíll do. Creatures like them do not change in mind, body or tactics. The beats will think theyíve won once my son comes to them but heís going exactly where we need him to go.”
“I was given strict orders to keep the prince away from the spirits, my king,” Kalin reminded him.
“The timing was not right then, captain. Things have changed and the spirits have grown prideful but you know what they say: pride comes before the fall. These spirits will not last the month!”
“And your son, my lord?”
“He has fallen for their tricks, as I did so many years ago.”
“We’re not to send men after him?” Kalin really did sound confused when he asked questions like that.
“Not just yet…” Fergus could already see a plan falling into place. His mind coaxed and measured each idea into a shape. By the end, they each hit together.
~Eight~
Hexel accepted Thurrin’s presence and did not try to hinder him again but he was not yet ready to accept her good will. Hexel had crossed an unspoken line. Thurrin could not just let trust fall back into place after everything fell apart like that. She had been ready to abandon him on the road as a blind outlaw!
There were people looking for him and Thurrin did not think that they wished him well. He had enemies, but he thought that leaving Ysig would protect the island. Clearly, that assumption was wrong. The islands were still in danger even now that he was gone. Those enemies could have easily killed him while he lay blind in the wilderness. They could have taken revenge on Ysig Island.
Thurrin knew that she was looking at it hastily, the way women always seem to; that she was seeing it as saving his life but he did not give out trust freely and he felt justified in withholding trust from her until she proved she was ready for it. He held with his vow to never leave her side but she still had to work for trust. Thurrin would think that the need to build up trust was obvious but again, women saw the world strangely. Hexel must see her actions as good but she expects him to see the same. She was the heroine in her own tale.
The two of them walked in silence, neither daring to break the bubble of peace that had been made, but both needed to talk. Both needing companionship.
“Why were you in the caves?”
Thurrin knew that she was in those caves for a reason but he also knew that the reasons she gave were not the whole truth. Hexel knew about Fergus’s heart but she never revealed how she knew or why she was there herself.
“Thurrin,” Hexel said carefully, “I think that you know I’m not from around here…”
“I’m not from this area either,” Thurrin said in confusion. “Many people are travelers.”
Hexel looked lost now, but she continued on, “I am from farther away than most. There are people from my land that make a study of travel. Those scholars needed information on the cave.”
“Did your scholar tell you about Fergus of Sirle’s heart? Did they ask you to come here and get the heart?”
“The scholars would not be happy with me if they knew that I was here,” Hexel admitted.
“I thought that they sent you here to look at caves.”
“They asked me to take samples but I’ve found a king’s heart and magic pathways and agreed to help you and done a thousand and one more things that they will not approve of.”
“Are you,” Thurrin couldn’t believe that he was saying it even as the words left his mouth. “Are you running away from home?”
“I suppose that I am now. I was supposed to return home over a month ago.”
“What will you do when you come back?”
“I don’t know,” Hexel admitted. “I don’t intend on coming back.”
“Will your scholars make you return?”
“They have sent other travelers to find me but none of them have succeeded.”
Thurrin looked at her straight in the eyes. “Seems like a big risk. What made you want to stay?”
“I need to think on where to beginÖ Twelve years ago my home was ruled by one family but now itís ruled by a committee. I was young when it happened but I remember the fear. I remember how uncertainty ruled our lives during the Great Change. Neighbors just disappeared and friends were found dead. Itís not something I want to see again. I donít want it to happen here. There are signs that change is coming. It has been coming for years but something is pushing it along, making it faster. I wanted to help your home because I couldnít help mine.”
“I thought that all of that already happened when Regus Arram conquered Ysig.”
“Iím sure that it felt like the world was ending but the truth is that the world is a big place and most of it has been able to go on as it always had. Trouble is coming that will dwarf Regus Arram.” Hexel spoke in an ominous voice, trying to show Thurrin the weight of truth with words alone.
“How do we stop it?”
“We need to find the person pushing it along first. This is not the natural way of destruction.”
“Your people study destruction?”
“They study everything and the scholars know that Fergus of Sirle is at the heart of the problem. Youíre looking for Fergusís heart and I think I need to find it.”
“Roland showed me where it was in a vision but I was flying then. Iíll do my best to find it from the ground.”
“Take your time,” Hexel said when a man immerged from the shadows wearing Regus Arramís colors and the towers of Glavinore on a surcoat.
“Halt there!” He yelled. “Explain your business!”
“We are royal curriers,” Thurrin said quickly.
“Give me your name and your message.”
“Our names and our messages are not for your ears,” Hexel told the knight in a cold voice. “We have important information and must move through.”
“Will you not speak to my commanding officer? The other messengers all did so. Surgent Honeyfoot is very insistant man. He will not be happy if he hears that curriers have come and not visited him.”
“Is there a standing order about curriers?” Thurrin asked in a more humble voice.
“There is an order and I think you can imagine what it is.” The knight guestered to other men with towers on surcoats. A dozen men surged forward and formed a tight circle around them. “All messengers are to be brought to the Surgent.”
“We will go to him without a fight so there is no need to call guards,” Thurrin said, doing his best to sound reasonable. “The lady and I do not need any escorte.”
“The standing order requires an escorte. A messenger or two have gotten lost in the past and the Surgent likes to be thorough.” They were lead to small tents. “Please get comfortable and freshen up while you wait.”
“When will the Surgent be able to hear our message?” Hexel asked in a careful voice.
“It won’t be long now.”
A circle of guards remained outside of the tents but Hexel and Thurrin were succluded inside. The tent was short but sturdy with thick beams and a spralling ceiling.
“What message do we give the Surgent?” Thurrin asked Hexel once the soldier’s left.
“We don’t tell him anything. We leave before those guards come back.”
“Didn’t you see the flags?” Thurrin asked. “A member of the royal family is here in camp! We can’t just leave!”
“Why not?”
“Didn’t those scholars of your’s teach you edicut? Don’t you know how to treat a king or a duke?”
“I told you, there have been no kings in my country for many years. There is no need to learn such things.”
“There is a need if you wish to travel,” Thurrin pointed out dryly. “Particularly if you’re traveling to places with kings.”
“Each country has different rules of editcut and I have many other things to learn. I want to continue learning so we need to leave even though the royal family is here.”
“This isn’t just about editcut. The royal family of Glavinore know me. They will kill me if they learn that I’m here.”
“All the more reason to leave now!”
“The royal family know what I look like. They already know I’m here and they will search for me unto the ends of the earth. I have to let them have me!”
“No, you don’t! We can leave now.”
The sounds of ringing mettle and singing swords merged with the melodies of camp. Thurrin knew that his chance to escape was long gone but he thought that Hexel had a chance. Even her chances for escape were gone now. They were surrounded.
“Take my hand,” Hexel commanded, “and don’t let go.”
Thurrin thought to give her some comfort and took her hand in his own. A roaring wind blew in from the east and blew so savagly that his ears were plugged and his eyes were blurred. Thurrin fekt himself travel through the air itself without form, heart or soul. Thurrin found himself again when he matterialized out of nothing. He turned his head thinking to find that a thousand years, or no time at all, had past while he slept. He found Hexel laying next to him beneath a hedge. There were no knights in sight.
“Hexel? How did you do that?”
“I… I don’t normally do magic like that. I need rest… too much at once. The red star leaks in… It takes magic as soon as a grab ahold.”
“Alright,” Thurrin agreed seeing no other option. “You rest and I’ll look for shelter or make camp or something.”
Thurrin could see from her relaxed features that she was already asleep. She had not heard a word he said. He set out to do as he had said. He gathered things for a camp site and planned on setting it up before Hexel woke but men and women in strange clothes stopped him.
“So our wayward sheep is finally found!”
“It’s amazing that she made it this far. Poor Hexel is only just a student. No one meant for her to have to do all of this alone! We must take her back to the school where she can be properly trained.”
“You mean where she can be properly punished,” argued the first of Hexel’s scholars.
“You cannot just take her!” Thurrin dashed into the clearing and to Hexel’s side. “She came here to protect you!”
“Take them both,” the first scholar decided. “They all require training.”
The whole group left in a cloud of blue smoke.
~**~
Hexel woke slowly to find herself surrounded by scholars in a small room.
“It is good to see you awake, Hexel. Your education must continue.”
Hexel shook her head. “I am no longer a student here.”
“We have been too lax in your training,” Scholar Gawks, a man with heavy dark eyebrows, declared.
“I joined the Phoenix Society because I thought we would change the world but thatís not what you do.”
“Knowledge can change our world and many others,” Scholar Gawks argued.
“Youíre too scared to help people! The society keeps saying that our job is not to interfere so no one does anything. Children die in front of you and still no one acts! Thatís not what I signed up for. Iím done!”
Gawks looked annoyed but his voice was calm when he spoke, “You have a choice, Hexel. You can come back to us and continue your education or you can watch Thurrin Ysig get his memory whipped.”
“Why would you do that? That type of magic would interfere with multiple worlds!”
“Very few people can shape wind,” Scholar Madden said in a gentle voice.
“That wasnít me!” Hexel insisted. “I donít know how I did it and I know I canít do it again.”
“You know our plans, Hexel. Does this choice really require such thought?”
Hexel could not find words to answer. Understanding dawned on her: these people would use her for their own gains. They lored her here with tales of greatness and safety but the truth was much different. These scholars and their society did not change the world! They ruled it with an iron fist! Their candidate, the candidate who paid them, won each election.
“Hexel. Choose.”
Finally, she found words. “I do not care. I do not care! You choose! If you want me, then keep me?if not, send me back. What do you want me to do? Thank you for giving me a place in this wasteland? I understand greed and hate but I do not understand the cold logic of this society.”
“Is that so?” Gawks breathed. He watched her closely, his thin mouth tightening again at the corners. “You should never make accusations like that without proof. I could ask a specialist or two to change your mind and you would never even know it. I would hate to break such a strong mind.”
“You have already broken my spirit!” she cried. “You will turn me into a falcon on a silver thread! I will fly in the air but never be free! You will do the same to Thurrin and his people and everyone in that world! I will go down on my knees to you to keep that from happening, but I can never give you thanks for the shackles you will give me.”
“You could not?try to help? We all want the same thing: to save lives.”
“You don’t care about me or the people on Ysig! You want to use me and him but you’ll have to find someone else. I’m through helping you find people to take advantage of!”
Scholar Gawks gave Hexel a shrewd look and a knowing smile. “You’re in love with the prince of Ysig.”
“I love no one! I will never love anyone! I’ll be stuck in this place forever because of some power you think I have.”
He sat silently a moment, a finger moving up and down the table while she watched him, her hands tight on the arms of her chair. He said softly, his words measured to the slow movement of his hand, “You will not always fear this place, Hexel. I will show you secret text and spells even you have never dreamed of learning. There are wonders in the society that you have never seen. There is a telescope that sees into locked doors; a cloak that allows its wearer to walk through walls; shoes that keep mud from your path. Each scholar will share their secrets with you. I will give you the locked, bound books of the wizard Merlin, never opened since his death three centuries ago, and I will tell you how to open them…” His words formed like dreams in her mind; she felt herself lulled, her mind eased, darkened.
As from far away she saw him rise slowly, shadow-silent, come toward her, his voice low, weaving visions for her that formed and rested in her numbed mind. She felt his fingers straying to her wrists. “I will teach you to shift into the earth itself, into nothingness. No one notices a tree but it can see everything.”
His breath whispered against her face. A cry rose in her somewhere but it faded, lost. She felt his hands at her throat, saw the silver circle of his ring wink and tremble in the light. Something in the back of her mind screamed at her to look at Gawk’s hands but his words had her under a spell. She could not force her eyes away from his.
“Give me your hand and I will place in it a cup.” Hexel felt the weight of a cup in her hand and her fingers closed around it. “Drink from the water,” Gawks ordered. Hexel’s mind yelled at her to toss the cup to the ground but her body would not obey her. Her hand shook.
She felt cloth gathered, tense, in his fingers, heard the hiss of it, torn. She heard the breath shake, faintly between his lips as he spoke, “I will give you all the treasures of the world, and all its secrets… Hexel, my shifter…” His head dropped. His lips touched her throat, brushed downward. And then she felt that in that one brief moment he lost her, and she whispered one word without hope, almost without thought.
“No.”
His head jerked upward, his eyes blazing into hers. He whirled away from her abruptly, and found an army of wind spirits behind him. He screamed once, and then was overwhelmed. The spirits moved like a mist that held him upright an instant, his arms outspread, fingers taut. Then he dropped.
“No,” she whispered again, unable to stop shaking.
~**~
Thurrin ran at the door for what must have been the hundreth time. The thing still wouldn’t move an inch or give a breath. His fist beat it one more time before he slumped down in the conrer. The last few hours were all a blur. He remembered the strange figures suddenly appearing and taking Hexel. He had tried to stop them. He remembered that too.
He remembered a pinch on the side of his neck and the prick of a needle. Then he was tired… too tired to move… too tired to fight. The strangers had taken him then and brought him here. But he could not remember how he had gotten here. There were holes in his memory.
He remembered waking in this room. He had yelled and hit the door but they only ignored him. It had been hours and it looked like whoever had brought him here intended to keep him locked up and slowly starve him to death. He had done his best to stay alert but he knew less about his captures now than he had when he was first taken.
The door hissed open then.
“What do you want?” Thurrin demanded.
“We’ve been informationed that you know magic,” the woman scholar said. It took Thurrin a second or two to remember they called her Madden.
“Where’s Hexel?”
“Do you know magic, Thurrin Ysig? Who taught you?”
Thurrin refused to answer. If they would not answer his questions then why should he answer their demands? He leaned back and crossed his arms. Craten had used the pose more than once and he knew how it had annoyed him!
“I can’t help you if you don’t help me,” Scholar Madden told him in a gentle voice.
“Hexel taught me all I know. Will you take me to her?”
Madden nodded. “Follow me. We hope that you will agree to study with us as Hexel has.”
“She ran from you.”
“She is young and got confused. She will see the truth of things soon enough.” Madden walked ahead of Thurrin in quick, long strides. Thurrin hurried to keep up but Madden stopped abruptly before a door with two guards on either side. They spoke to Madden in a language that Thurrin did not know.
“Is Hexel in there?” Thurrin asked when no one moved.
“There has been a complication,” Madden admitted. “Scholar Gawks has betrayed us! Hexel was injured and is in the care of our healers. I will take you to her now.”
He was ushered into a dimmly lit room with a low bed. “Hexel!” Thurrin called when he saw her still form wrapped in sheets.
“Is he gone now, Thurrin? It was horrible! I was afraid that he would come after you!”
“You’re safe now Hexel, Scholar Gawks is gone,” Madden assured her.
“That’s not true, is it? Gawks wasn’t working alone. He wasn’t in the Rocky Isles or anywhere near Thurrin’s kingdom. Someone else is still there and that person will send a different minion to steal our will.”
Thurrin squeezed her hand. “I’ll watch for you. No one will come near,” he promised.
“You don’t know who to watch for. That’s why Scholar Madden is still here. She has a favor to ask of us,” Hexel said as she looked at her former teacher with knowing eyes but Thurrin’s blazed red hot.
“You expect us to find your rougue scholar after you fail to catch a spy hiding under your nose?”
“Clearly, the society has been doing a poor job of searching out spies. We humbly ask you to find the rogue agent in the field. Your world is the one in danger after all,” Madden pointed out.
“You put my world in danger with your schemes! The bard and the knight and your towers!”
“None of those were our doing,” Madden said in a pleading voice. “The society believes that your bard can lead you to the rogue agent. All of the schemes were her work, not our’s.”
“The red star,” Hexel reminded Madden. “That has happened in another world after the society interveined. Could it be Polivera? Or one of her agents?”
“We do not believe that Polivera is involved and there was never any evidence that the society’s work connected with the event at Nephosus.”
“There is no other possibility,” Hexel argued. “The Phoenix Society’s people caused the trouble at Nephosus and we are the cause of the schemes in Ysig.”
“Will you help us solve the trouble?”
“I don’t see any choice,” Thurrin said in a resigned voice. “I needs to be done.”
Hexel nodded. “Send us back to the Stone Forests.”
“We cannot send you back alone,” Madden said in a saddened voice. “A member of the society needs to be part of the mission.”
“Hexel,” Thurrin began but he saw the problem as soon as her name left his mouth.
“Hexel has formally requested leave from the society. She no longer wants to be a member. But even without the request, Hexel is only a student. She was never a full member.”
“Who would be coming?” Hexel ran through a list of society members. She had made a friend or two durring her time as a student but the society could only take so many people in the end. The students could get competitive and Hexel had lost some friends by not playing their games. She had two lists of people in her head and carefully put each name she remembered into each.
“Kelson Richenda has just graduated,” Madden said.
“Do you know him?” Thurrin asked Hexel.
“Kelson Richenda was a few years a head of me. I never had any classes with him but I have heard of him. Everyone says he’s a fast learner. Kelson has the best grades in his class too. Scholar Madden is trying to give you the best. She must really want the help.”
“You think we should agree?”
Hexel nodded and the two of them found themselves falling through a portal and back into the Stone Forest.
~**~
Melody guided Ian further into the forests, looking for the pool where the waterspirits had brought her to the surface. She watched the ground for swampy area and pools. She could have sworn that she recognised the mangled trees but the ground was bone dry.
“I know that it’s around here somewhere,” Melody said to assure herself and Ian both. “The waterspirits said that they put magic in place for your mother.”
“My mother is dead now,” Ian said saddly. “The magic they put in place for her did no good.”
“It’s too late to help her but it can still help you.”
“I don’t know if I want their help,” Ian told her.
“Where else would we go?”
“Anywhere! We could follow Thurrin and Craten to Ysig or go to your father in Umbria. We could even live in the Stone Forest if we wanted.”
“Do you want to go there?”
Ian’s brow furrowed into knots. “I want to go to Ysig and live a quiet life but I don’t think that’s an option. We won’t be safe if we go there.”
“You make it sound like we won’t be safe anywhere.”
“It’s death to stand still; that’s all I know. We need to keep moving,” Ian insisted.
“Your father may mean to conquer the world but the waterspirits are safe under the surface. They can help us.”
“They seem too easy, too eager to help. I don’t trust them.”
Melody shook her head. “I don’t see another option.”
Ian sighed. “I don’t either.”
“We don’t need to trust them but we need help, Ian.”
He nodded. “They can help us. Do you think their loyalty to my mother will hold?”
“I don’t think they’re lying about their respect for her… they seem sincere.”
Ian looked up at the red commit in the night sky and knew he was out of options. “Lead the way.”
Melody fell into a pool that was not there a second ago. Ian moved to follow her.
Darkness seemed to close around Ian but he tried to follow all the same. Ian could only gasp and fall to the floor. Earth and stone moved to meet him. Waves of color broke over him and tried to drag him away. Ian struggled against it only to find his arms caught. Strong arms wrapped around him and forced his elbows to his sides. Ian heard something scrambling among shadows and the clink and scrape of chains. He closed his eyes, fighting the undertow of pain, the promise of peaceful oblivion, and pulled at the knife at his belt.
“Who are you?” Ian demanded. “What do you want?”
“We are your family and we want the best for you.”
Ian wanted to ask more but he fell piecemeal into pain and then darkness, waking sometime later in an unfamiliar room. He tried to raise only to stumble and fall against a marble table. The table, chairs and the floor itself were all made up of marble stones. They were cold but towering. The light of the hearth, candles and even the stars danced and played on it but none of the light could bring any warmth. Fanciful flowers covered the walls in needlework of thin, mettalic threads. The light shifted and reflected in the thread and seemed to give life but no warmth. This was a cold place and not even the blazing hearth could lessen the cold.
“Where am I?” Ian asked aloud. He saw the door then and began to bang a fist against the thick wood. “Open the door! Where have you taken Melody!”
A guard banged back with an armored fist to the door. “Step back! The laird will enter!”
A shadow made of water entered the room then. The room took on a strange, blue light and Ian knew that this was one of Melody’s waterspirits. The room was not cold because of stones but because of water. The being before him was one of his mother’s people and one of his captors. Ian was not sure what he should say to a Laird of water but words came before he could stop them, “My mother looked nothing like you.”
“Your mother was our kinswoman in heart if not by blood. She was never a waterspirit but she came to love us. She came to the water and refused to leave until a man came for her.”
“Where is Melody?”
“She has chosen the same path as your mother.”
Ian could not believe the water laird. “I have come for Melody. The time has come in my loving, when I want no long road between us, and no stone wall or locked door.”
“You cannot have her.”
“But why? You’re growing a flower in the darkness and shutting up treasure where no one can see.”
“Why would I gave her to you? You will lock her up in stones of yourown. She will weep beside your hearth.”
“You should give her to me because I love her. Let me talk to her and you will see.”
“You know nothing of wanting. My wanting could fill a room or a palace but you have not learned the knawing of it. I need no wanting! I need hope. Find it for me, Ian of Sirle,” the water laird desided. He walked away, leaving Ian locked in the cold stone room.
“You’re leaving me in this empty house with a price on freedom!” Ian screamed after the laird into the darkness.
“There is no price on freedom, for the fire has already paid that price. There is a price,” the laird decided, “on your loving. There is a price for Melody.”
“There should be no price. Only my heart in exchange for her’s.”
“You truly believe that this is about your choices?”
“It should be about her choice. Our love has nothing to do with you.”
“Give me hope and you may have Melody.”
Ian wracked his mind for the answer to this riddle. “My mother spoke of children giving her hope.”
“I have no children.”
“You have surely seen children… Can you not have hope in the future?”
“I do not think that I like small children. Their crying makes me sorely sad.”
“Then find hope in joy or hope in nature…” Ian was beginning to think that the only way out of this place was to start naming random things and hope that one held the secret to hope.
“The oak trees are wise but they will wither in their time.”
“Look for hope in your name and in your family.”
“Family,” the laird repeated, considering with a hand to his chin. “Now we come to the heart of the matter. Your mother was closer than family to me.”
“Did you have hope in her?”
“She brought hope to our people but Fergus of Sirle has brought us nothing but ruin.”
“My father is not a friend to me.”
“Your mother brought us something that we had lost and in thanks for that we gave her what help we could but she did the things a lady must do. Her decisions have brought distruction on us all!”
The sun appeared as an unblinking eye above the laird but Ian did not see the light. His eyes were glued to the waterspirit. “That is different than the tale Melody told me.”
“Melody learned the tale from illusions. They would never tell her the whole truth.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There are waterspirits and then there are waterspirits. The beings that saved Melody from the bog are nothing more than imposters.”
“Then why did they save her only to ly to her?”
“They wanted you.”
“I am hardly important.”
The waterspirit smiled at Ian then. “Let me show you something.” It lead Ian out of the room and into an open field.
Some strange eel was saddled in that area. The waterspirit held the stirup while Ian mounted.
“Now,” the spirit said, “we will follow that revine. Whatever happens, don’t move, don’t speak, don’t make a sound.”
The world around Ian seemed to vanish. He could not feel the eel beneath him or the breathe of wind on his cheeks but he heard music. The dense night filled his eyes again. He heard a thin, bitter wind weave into the music, pick it apart, until nothing was left but wind roaring in darkness, revealing the shapes of trees, that thin fire never touched.
Ian heard his name but he did not recognise the voice so he ignored it. He tasted rain and recognized that darkness that closed in and he knew nothing more for a long time.
The water laird had moved him by the time he woke. “Where are we?” Ian asked in a groggy voice.
The water laird shook his head. “I told you not to move or make one sound.”
“I didn’t,” Ian protested.
“You wouldn’t have fallen if you followed my instructions!”
“Where are we going?” Ian asked again. “What did you want to show me so baddly?”
“You spoke of family and I wanted to show you the house where your mother was raised.”
“You threatened Melody and kidnapped me but now you want to talk about family?”
The Laird’s tone turned to ice. “I take it from your tone that you no longer want to be helpful.”
“I wasn’t trying to be helpful before!” Ian admitted.
“I’m afraid I shall have to take a firmer hand.”
The laird waved his hand in the air as if in greeting. The wave must have been part of a spell because Ianís blood turned to fire as soon as the arm started its downward arch. The heat started as an almost pleasant buzz near his fingertips but the heat increased as it traveled up his arms. The heat felt like lightning strikes by the time the heat reached his elbows and only got more intense as it reached his core. Ian passed out before the heart could reach his heart. He did not want to imagine the pain he would feel once the heat could no longer travel but he felt the dull, aching echo of it when he woke.
“I thought you wanted to show me something,” Ian reminded his captor. “I won’t be able to see much if I’m knocked out. My eyes need to be open.”
“I’ll make sure that you’re awake for the important part,” the Laird promised. “Look at that house by the shore. You’ll find your lady next to the second floor window.”
“Melody? She’s here?”
“Take a look in a window. I’m sure she would like a see you.”
Ian could not keep his eyes from wondering to the glass where the Laird pointed. Three windows lined the upper floors. Ian saw a shadow in the furthest one. He leaned foreward to get a better look but he still could not see more than a shadow but he knew who it was all the same. The Laird handed him a spyglass and Ian looked through but it only told him what he already knew. Melody was in the upper floors of the house. Ian moved the spyglass to look around the area but he saw no way out.
“I want to talk to her. Seeing is not enough.”
“You’ll get your chance. We did not travel all this way just so you could look at her! You will dine with her tonight and stay with her for a year or so.”
The timeframe made Ian’s head snap up. “What are you planning?”
“You’re marrying the lady. I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“Where am I going after a year?” Ian fought his own mind. He couldn’t afford distraction with the Laird and he would not risk Melody’s safety. “Marriage should be for life.”
“Your wife and child will need protection,” the Laird told him.
“Protection from what?”
“I don’t know that part yet,” he admitted.
Ian looked into his eyes, searching for truth. One eye turned green and the other stayed blue. He searched for truth but the vague eyes hid more than they revealed. They had an unearthly beauty that highlighted the mysteries that they hid.
“Will you tell me when you know?”
“I promised to tell Lady Melody first but you will be the second to know.”
Ian nodded his thanks and followed the Laird into his new home to see his wife.
~**~
Regus Arram did his best to ignore the sounds the sobbing woman made. His new queen had insisted that the Lady Greenwood be brought in for questioning. Regus could deny his queen nothing even when her requests made absolutely no since. The Greenwood girl was a noble-born singer in the court. Still, the queen had insisted that the singer needed to be questioned. Regus never asked his queen why the girl needed to be questioned. He trusted his queen! But he wished he didnít have to hear her screams or her sobs. Syon Med loved the lady and he trusted Syon like a brother, didnít he?
“My love,” Regus called his queen, “is this really necessary? The young lady could not have known that those men were rougues. She is an innocent in all of this.”
“A lady has a way of knowing the men she surrounds herself with. This Lady Greenwood knows more than she is telling.”
“She is young still and those men were looking for an unknowing accomplice.”
“Men talk when they take a lady to bed.”
The king gave his wife a shocked look before jumping to the young woman’s defense. “Surely not, my love! The young lady is deeply inlove with Syon Med. Those rogues simply told her a story about young country girls waiting for them. The Lady Greenwood felt sorry for them and agreed to help.”
“I want to hear the story from her own mouth, my king,” the queen insisted, “not from your lips.”
“Surely the Lady has told the story by now.” The king tried to shake the memory of her screams from his mind. He could not imagine her screaming like that for simple travelers that passed through. “Purhaps the men are family… She would not risk so much for some men she just met!”
“Greenwood has betrayed your friend Syon Med,” the queen told her husband in a cold voice.
“The Lady has confessed this?”
Regus Arram felt panic rise in him. Syon Med was his oldest friend. The knight was like a brother to the king. The Lady Greenwood had stolen Syon’s heart. The king watched love change his friend and the Lady of Greenwood made a place for herself in Regus’s heart because of it. Her betrayal stole a piece of his heart as surely as it stole all of Syon’s love. Syon would be a broken man when he heared the news.
“She will confess soon,” the queen promised in a voice like silk. The silky threads were meant to sooth him but her words only sent shivers down her spine.
“She’ll admit anything under torture as any one would!”
“She admits that she’s been working with Umbria against you.”
“Umbria? The whole kingdom could fit on the head of a pin! They are no threat.”
“Umbria has stronge magic-users that will make up for what they lack in size. Do not dismiss Umbria.”
“I will call my lords together and gather an army.” Regus Arram promised.
“Fergus of Sirle has been a friend to my family for many years,” the queen said in a high, sweet voice. “Call on him and he will help you.”
“I will,” Regus Arram promised. He could deny his queen nothing.
~**~
“Be warned, Fergus of Sirle,” the bard warned in a voice that shook the earth. “There is a child on ana island who will grow to become a sorcerer and that man will defeat you. He will take your magic and your land, take your son and take your name! That sorcerer will be your doom!”
“Do not threaten me, Bard! You may know magic but I am a king and I command no small amount of magic myself!”
“This is not my threat. I am repeating the words in the book of prophets. He saw you and he saw your son and your doom!”
“What does my son have to do with this? That rebellious boy is gone and good riddance!”
“Your son is gone and he is working against you. You need to find him! Thurrin Ysig brought the cup to his brother. We cannot ignore the threat of Ysig for much longer. The only connection we have to the island is through your son,” the bard commanded the king.
“I have my ways to find him,” Fergus admitted. “But there are better ways that will make him come to me.”
“This is not the time to play games! Get it done!”
“You’ve been testy ever since that red commit appeared in the sky! All your belly-aching ends now! Focus on your own job,” Fergus reminded her angrily. “That woman from your society is still out there and you said you’d take care of her!”
The bard’s black eyes darkened. “Hexel is a trained professional. Your son is feeling around in the dark. It’s hardly fair to compare the two.”
Fergus’s already steely eyes turned hard. “Can you beat her or not?”
“Hexel will not be a problem. She is still learning magic and I have studied for a lifetime. I can beat her easily but she will not be alone. The Phoenix Society will claim Hexel and protect her. Killing her is out of the question but I know the Society; they will not risk the students. The Phoenix Society will not harm me if I do not harm her.”
Fergus’s face burned with anger and his voice boomed. “Thought you were going to eliminate this threat! Now you tell me that you won’t harm the girl!”
“I can take her out of your games without harming her. I will take her magic and hold her randsom against the Society. The commit is your problem, not mine. You made the deal even when all your advisers and everyone in the society advised against it. Hexel was not even a student then but she would have known not to trust those creatures.”
“Killing her will be much simpler,” Fergus warned. “Kidnapping and randsom can be dangerous games. They can go wrong quickly.”
“Will you kill your son?”
“In the end I will have to kill him. But I have a use for him first.”
Fergus of Sirle smiled slowly and the bard could not help but smile back.
~Nine~
Hexel couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned, searching for a more comfortable position, but sleep still alluded her. Kelson and Thurrin rested at either side of her and they both slept deeply. They had no trouble finding peace. Hexel could not shake the feeling that something bad was on the horizon. The red light above her only ignited her fears. The thought kept her awake even though she knew that worry was useless.
Hexel felt a loneliness that she had been able to ignore for weeks. She did not know who to trust. The loneliness felt temporary before, like it was just something that had to be endured until it passed. Now she was beginning to think that it would never pass. It was a strange feeling this loneliness. She would have to learn to live straight and cold, as if she were made of stone but hollow inside. She would not live long without allies and no one to trust. Could she trust Thurrin? She wanted to but there were secrets that she had not told him.
The red light from the star beat down on her and only made the worry worse. The commit was an omen of something terrible. The light had not faded over all the time the commit had shot across the sky. The light should have become common or even comforting but the red light still sent shivers down Hexel’s spine. She turned to her side, hoping that shutting the star out of her sight would keep it from her mind, but the tremulous thoughts never left her mind.
“What is it?” Thurrin whispered to her.
“I just can’t sleep.”
Thurrin shook his head. “I know you and I know that look. Tell me all of it.”
“I can’t hide anything from you!”
“I thought you would be relieved after the Society’s decision. All that uncertainty is gone!”
“That’s just the problem. I am full of uncertainty. I see that red light and I know that I have no answers. This light is an omen of evil to come and I do not know if I can face it.”
Thurrin put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “You came through caves and battles and magic. What’s one more disaster? Miracles follow you!”
Hexel laughed softly. “I think that the miracles follow you.”
“My life seems to be nothing but disasters: the battle with Regus Arram, the quest for the dragon’s tower, and now the trip to the caves! Roland died because of me and then I got lost.”
“You would never have met me if you haven’t gotten lost,” Hexel pointed out.
“I would have made a better impression on you. I wouldn’t have been a bumbling yolkal!” Thurrin tried to laugh, but it came out choked.
“I know you miss your friend. He would be proud to see you now.”
Kelson sat up from his sleeping pallet. “The dragon would have been a powerful ally. They do not die easily.”
“There was another dragon beneath the mountain,” Thurrin began and told the whole story.
“Are you shure that the dragons destroyed each other?” Kelson asked. “Could Roland Dragon not still be alive?”
“Roland would have returned to his quest if he were able to. He would have found us in the caves.”
“How did the dragon learn of the path?” Kelson asked and explained, “Dragons live long and are known to be wise but their focus is known to wonder. They rarely focus on the world they live in. A dragon’s heart is always in the world that was left.”
“What world?” Hexel could not help but ask. She wanted to get this overwith as quickly as possible and with little distraction. Hexel was already failing miserably.
“No one knows the name or location of their homeworld… or no one but the dragons,” Kelson amended. “Scholar Hamish can go on and on about the possible locations and the available space for life in other demensions. I guess some of it rubbed off on me.”
“I didn’t understand half of that,” Thurrin admitted, “but I like to think that Roalnd’s people made it back to their home. Roland came to help us but the rest of his people had to be somewhere.”
“Most kingdoms think that the dragons came to conquer us but the scholars have not found any evendinse of that.”
“You’re not half as charming or half as clever as you think you are,” Hexel teased.
“I’m still left with more charm than half the world! I think very highly of myself so there is plenty left over.”
“You have an unending love for the sound of your own voice.”
“I grew up amoung scholars,” Kelson reminded them. “What did you expect?”
“You know that each kingdom here is at war ñ or about to be. Words will be like weapons and you’ll need to be careful what you say,” Hexel reminded her old classmate.
“Have no fear. Politics were amoung my studies.”
“Thurrin?”
“I’m a prince… or I was a prince as a child. My education was nothing but politics.”
Hexel nodded. “I’ll follow your lead then. I’m afraid that politics are not my strong-suite. I usually just don’t talk.”
“Doing nothing has always been one of the most popular moves in politics. Osten Ard is one of the most powerful rulers in the nothern kingdoms and he got that way by moving below the wire where no one could see. He did away with his wife and his adviser and became a strong king. Osten always dressed the part too.”
“You’ve met him?” Thurrin asked in surprise.
“He is different than any ruler that I’ve ever met. He believed in fairies and angels and mudholes. He believes any bone of a story the travelers tell,” Kelson explained. “He has dark hair that is always tangled like a horse that has run too fast in the wind and his eyes are an icey blue but his lips look like they belong on a fish.”
Thurrin frowned a little but his lips turned up in a smile after a time. “Maybe we can meet him after we take back Fergus of Sirle’s heart.”
“We might need his armies to get through Regus Arram’s knights.”
“Shouldn’t we be looking for allies closer to the conflict?” Hexel asked. “It will take months for Osten to move that many men so far.” The two men did not want to think about logistics and ignored her when she tried.
“I’ve heard stories of Osten Ard and his mines. They say that thousands of men would have died if he had not acted during the calasped.”
“He doomed twenty-three men to die,” Kelson reminded the other two. Hexel had never heard of Osten Ard but Thurrin seemed to think of him as a hero. Kelson had other thoughts.
“He had to choose between twenty-three men with an idiot foremen or every other miner in the network. Osten Ard chose to save thousands instead of twenty-three.”
“He was known for this craftiness.”
“You mean craftsmenship,” Thurrin corrected.
“No! I mean craftiness! He was a trickster. He closed off the mine shafts so that only one main shaft can be reached from the lowest levels. Guards were stationed on that shaft and charged miners to let them back up. Miners gave up over a tenth of their income to the king before they even got to the surface.”
“Miners love Osten Ard. They built a statue to him in the guild hall!”
“Statues hardly mean love,” Hexel reminded the other two. “They could still hate him and just ignore the statue. It’s like a good work of art: it’s really easy to make something no one likes but impossible to make something everyone likes. There will always be that one person who hates the thing you love.”
“Heroes are different than art,” Thurrin argued sullenly.
“Heroes don’t hunt the harmless! Do you know how the people in the north hunt rabbits?” Kelson did not wait for an answer before continuing, “they stop up all the enterences but one and send small dogs into that hole. Osten Ard used the same trick on his own miners!”
“Why didn’t the miners open different passages?” Hexel asked. “They had the tools and the know how.”
“One of the miners asked permission but he was denied. Osten’s guards killed him the next day. Not all rulers are as heartless as Osten Ard. Osten Ard’s son sent guards to open enterences and to build barnes and shacks around them.”
“Prince Orren Ard? I’ve met him! He is a shy, quiet boy,” Thurrin told the others.
“Orren puts that mask on when others are near. He does not want his father to even suspect that he is the one behind the mines. Osten does not know about the enterences. He only knows that fewer miners appear in the main shaft.”
“He must know that some miners will look for other, more profitable work,” Hexel pointed out.
“It will be worse than that,” Thurrin argued, his face paling. “Desperate people will do desperate things. The miners will revolt weather they have alternate routs out or not. None of this is ordinary and that includes the enemy. Miners will not be the only people in the revolt!”
“You think the people of Ysig will join them? Or the dragons?”
“I think that the people of Sron know that the queen in Glavinore is not their princess. They will not sit quietly while an imposter takes her place,” Thurrin told them.
“Sron has weapons that the other lands have never seen but they do not have a large army,” Kelson remembered from his lessons. “Sron might not make as big a difference as you seem to think. Glavinore’s force will beat them if the war goes no long enough.”
“Don’t underestimate Sron’s technology,” Thurrin advised.
“How did you get word from Sron? Ysig has no spy network and news does not travel so fast.”
“The miller on Ysig’s son married a merchant’s daughter. Her father trades in Sron. He brings news to us with each letter to his daughter. The young bride asks questions and she is paid for the service.”
“No one needs a spy network with enough relitives,” Kelson agreed to with smile.
“A man can never have enough cousins.”
“Until he’s your enemy.”
“The king of Sron thinks that he sent his daughter to marry Regus Arram. He will not go to war with his daughterís country.” Hexel wanted to remind the men of the facts before they got carried away.
“The king of Sron is said to be feeble,” Kelson told her.
“He is said to be king in name only,” Thurrin agreed. “The knights of Sron may rise up and protect their princess without the king’s permission.”
“The Phoenix Society may be able to help push the knights along. They have sources in the capital that can spread the idea that the queen of Glavinore was never the princess of Sron. The people of Sron may decide that something has to be done on their own but if not the Society can make it known that the princess is trapped.”
Hexel shook her head. “The Phoenix Socidety would never risk interaction like that. They never want to interfer with events already in motion.”
Kelson gave her a dark look. “The Society has learned from their errors. They are changing.”
Sadness radiated from Hexel’s eyes. “It may be too little, too late. Other worlds have fallen and died.”
“Don’t speak of these things!” Kelson snapped, interupting her. “Outsiders can hear.”
“I’ve seen your school. I’m hardly an outsider.”
“The scholars told you more than they should have,” Kelson spoke the words with anger in his eyes.
“That’s not your decision to make,” Hexel said.
“You really think that knowing all of this will help him?”
“Secrets are dangerous,” Hexel said more to herself than to either of the men. “Revealing them is the only way to keep the danger at bay.”
“Revealing secrets might be even more dangerous,” Kelson told them before guestering to the bushes around them. “You never understood that even as a student.”
Shadowy figures imerged from the bushes and moved towards them. They all wore the colors of Sirle and flying falcon on their surcoats. Thurrin and Hexel moved to draw weapons but they both knew that fighting was useless.
“Lay down your weapons!” Captain Kalin commanded.
Thurrin’s eyes cracked like thunder but he did not raise his sword. He waited a heart beat or two, staying still.
“Don’t be foolish,” Kelson advised. “Your weapons can and will be taken by force. None of us want violence.”
Knights with drawn swords moved close to Hexel. She had a strange staff weapon but even a trained warrior would have trouble fighting so many at once. There were stories of one man fighting off four men but the truth was that the lone fighter had found a way to fight them one at a time. Hexel could not take on six men in the open.
Thurrin sheithed his sword.
“Don’t give up because of me,” Hexel hissed.
“There’s no way we can win this. Lay down your weapon and fight another day.”
Hexel frowned but laied down her weapon.
“I knew that you could be reasonable,” Kelson told Hexel with an inferiating smirk. Hexel wanted to knock the smile from his lips but she knew that fighting would be useless. The red light of the commit glinted off the knights’ weapons and made them look even more dangerous but Hexel knew the truth: swords and spears could not longer help her but Kelson had given her the best weapon to use against him: secrets.
Kelson may have won this round but Hexel knew how to win the war!
~**~
What passed for a healer amoung the waterspirits had come to look at Melody that morning. Melody didn’t feel sick but Ian had insisted. She could not sleep the whole night through without getting up to use the bathroom and she needed to run to the bathroom in the mornings to empty her stomache.
“You’ll be fine,” the water healer told her. “You just need rest and plenty of liquids.”
The healer motioned Ian aside and wispered, “The lady is very bad, sire. There is a curse on her.”
Ian’s face went white. “My father?” Ian asked. “Can you tell if he sent the curse?”
“Who has motive to curse the Lady?”
“We need to tell her… I need to tell her…” Ian decided.
“It will be a shock that the lady does not need.”
“Worries take no account for time,” the Ian told the healer with a sad smile on his lips.
The healer left them then and Ian was glad of it. He wanted to share this moment with Melody and not with any of the waterspirits.
Ian looked down at Melody with tears in his eyes. “Stop looking at me like that and tell me the truth!” Melody ordered.
“They think that my father has cursed you… but don’t worry. I’ll lift the curse.”
Melody was fighting tears now. “The waterspirits will never let you leave. They captured us and they mean to keep us.”
“They owe my mother and now they owe me. The waterspirits will help me,” Ian swore through the tears. “I’ll make them see…”
Melody knew that he was trying to comfort her but she was not sure if she wanted him to succeed. “Itís the waterspirits who say Iím sick. They could be lying, trying to make you do what they want.”
Ian blushed at the thought of it. “I donít care if theyíre trying to trick me. It wonít change what I have to do.” Ian waited for a moment before continuing. He wanted to find his words and let her calm down before telling her the rest. “You know I’ll do everything I can to save you.”
“Stay with me,” Melody begged. “Don’t go off on some wild goose chase because some spirit told you that you have toÖ You have a choice.”
“I will always choose you,” Ian promised. He continued talking as if he had not heard her earlier words. “If there is even the smallest chance of saving you, Iíll take it.”
“Please donít,” Melody tried again. “Just stayÖ Itís like youíre under a spell.”
“No,” Ian told her. “Youíre under a curse and all I have to do is break it.”
“You know it won’t be that easy,” Melody told him gently.
Ian’s eyes turned sad as he thought of all the things their lives could have been. Her life was full of possibilities when she lived in the tower at Stone forest but his family had taken all that away from her. He felt like he had helped his father trap her. There was only one way to redeem himself and helping Melody now could acomplish that. It was the right thing to do but now he had to do right by her and right by the Sirle.
“You don’t have to be scared but it’s okay if you are,” Ian told her.
Melody put her hand on his arm. “You don’t have to be like your father.”
“I thought that they would make me a puppet king and that I could hide behind my powerlessness. Now I’m stuck down here, hiding from the world and the memory of my father’s past and unable to hide behind anything. I want to do the right by the you and break the curse but I don’t know if that’s in my power. I finally got away from my father but I’m still powerless to help you.”
Melody wrapped his arms around him. “I’m sorry. You could have been happy and safe here but I ruined it for you.”
“This curse ruins everything but we can stop it. I’m just remembering how things were with my father.”
“Do you think the laird will let us go home? Stopping Fergus will be harder if you cannot leave this building.”
“I’ll ask the laird and I’ll make plans just in case,” Ian promised. He could only pray the Laird understood. The waterspirit Laird had been strict with the rules he made. Ian dounted that the Laird would be leinient even in a life-or-death situation.
Ianís fears proved true after he talked to the Laird. The waterspirit Laird wanted to bargain more than anything else. Ian could not tell if the Laird understood that Melody’s life was at risk or not. The Laird wanted to talk more than act.
“Your mother made us many promises and none of them were met. I believe that I can do you a favor if you keep some of her promises.”
“My mother gave her life to keep your people safe! What promise did she forget to fullfill?” Ian did not bother with hiding his anger.
“Your mother promised us that she would send us her most valuable resource,” the Laird began. “Orphelia’s child would inherit something powerful and my people were meant to use it.”
“I’m Orphelia’s child and I don’t know of any powerful inheritance.”
“It takes a village to rise a child, my prince,” the Laird said with a dark tone.
“What are you talking about? What are you trying to say?”
“My people and I helped you under the assumption that you would send your child to us to be educated. Your mother swore that she would send you but Fergus of Sirle prevented her.”
“You want my child to do to school with waterspirits? How will he ever lean to be human?”
“You and yuour lady can teach him that well enough,” the Laird argued, “but the boy will inherit your magic and someone must teach him to use it.”
“I have no magic,” Ian insisted.
“Your mother gave you magic but it is small magic and you never learned to channel it. You could summon a fog on a cloudless day or make the sun shine when thunder threatens.”
“I never felt the need to do magic. I doubt my child will have need of it,” Ian argued.
“Your mother gave us her word! Will her vow be broken a second time?”
“My mother’s vows are not mine!”
“Who’s are they then? Would you deny your son all the kindness and possibilities of education? Would you only show half a culture? Half an identity?”
Ian knew that he could not flat out refuse in good consiousness but this was not his decision alone either. “I must speak with Melody before desions like that can be made.”
“Your lady has had something of a shock from this unexpected illness. I don’t think burdening her with more would be helpful. Wait awhile and speak with her after she has time to accept the realities of her situation. Let her have her time to heal. Send her to her family,” the Laird advised.
“You may be right about waiting,” Ian agreed but he did tell her on the long carrage ride from the bog to her father’s estate.
Ian expected her to be uset with him but she wasn’t. Instead, she told him, “There’s something I need to tell you too. The star in the sky is changing my magic.”
“Changing it how?”
“I don’t know yet. I can’t call to it and I have really odd dreams.”
“Dreams?”
“Dreams. The asleep kind of dream, not the kind children have about growing up.”
“What’s odd about them?”
“I think they’re real,” Melody admitted to her stunned husand.
~**~
Hexel did her best to look on the bright side of things. She tried to keep an open mind and a riegn on her temper but there was only so much she could do. They were prisoners and the list of good things about prisons was not long.
“You really think that Fergus of Sirle cares about us? It’s Prince Ian that he wants,” Hexel tried to goad Captain Kalin into giving her information. The Captain typically ignored her various comments but he rose up to this one.
“It’s not King Fergus who’s asking for you, it’s the Bard of Sron.”
“The Bard tricked us,” Thurrin told him. “You can’t trust a word that she says!”
“Sirle has an agreement with the bard and with all the alliances that she brings.”
“You’ll have a shorter list of allies when the Phoenix Society gets involved,” Hexel tried to argue.
“The Phoenix Society doesn’t get involved. That’s the point.” Captain Kalin gave Hexel a knowing look. The bard must have told Fergus more than the Society told her! She stopped talking, knowing that Kalin would use anything she said against her. The days went on like that, in stony silence, until the group made their way into Sirle.
“About time you got here, Kalin,” Fergus greeted. “Ameranthine has been waiting!”
“Take them while I breif the king,” Kalin commanded his men.
Hexel and Thurrin were pulled and prodded across bumby terrain until they came to a series of tents. The majority of the tents were a crisp white but one in the middle was larger than the others and died a bright red. Hexel and Thurrin knew that their captures were taking them to the red tent. They were pushed to their knees infront of it and forced to wait in that position until Ameranthine, the Bard, came out.
“Little Lady Hexel!” Amaranthine recognised her. “Kelson has told me so much about you. And who is your friend?”
“Please, me lady,” Thurrin said in a strong southerner’s accent, “Iee ain’t got no business here. Iees just some traveler on the road.”
“He’s Thurrin Ysig, the Island prince, and he knows a little of the Phoenix Society too,” Kelson broke in, spoiling Thurrin’s lie. A guard kicked at Thurrin.
“Answer the Bard’s questions truthfully now and you won’t come to no trouble,” the guard warned.
“I’ll be truthful if she is. Like for like.”
“You’re in no position to dictate terms,” the Bard snapped.
“We’re in the perfect position!” Hexel said brightly. “You need us.”
“You are precious to my plans but not necessary. You and Thurrin are the ideal cannidates but you are far from the only canidates.” The Bard looked at them both with a black stare that had more cruelty in it than anything the Society or Regus Arram could do. Her black eyes showed all her heartlessness and all her power. She not only wanted to seek revenge, she had the means to make sure that it did happen. She had resources to make anyone suffer! She nodded to a guard who punched Thurrin’s face. Hexel leaned over him and the blood on his face was washed away by the tears flowing down her cheeks.
“You didn’t need to do that,” Hexel told her in a choked voice.
“You needed to see where you stood. You know what lengths I will go to and you know that a broken nose is only the beginning.”
“You’re war is with the Society, not against him,” Hexel tried to pleade. “Please don’t do this!”
“No!” Amaranthine shouted as a guard grew the younger woman up. “I cannot stop now when I am so close.” Hexel rised her hand to touch the woman who was more ledged than truth but the guards struck her arm away. Hexel called out in pain and then in anger when she saw other guards taking Thurrin away. Hexel only ignored her, “Take them to Tamlyn Palace. That place is all but abandoned now.”
“My son and his friends found a way out of the palace. I cannot believe that he would betray me and work with them!” Fergus of Sirle roared.
“Your son has made his own bed. Let him lay in it for awhile. He will come back to you begging for forgivness.”
“I don’t understand half of your odd phrases but I know that my son will not come to me unless I send someone to bring him. The boy may relieze his mistake and he may leave the waterspirits but he will not come back to me unless he is made to do so.”
“Oh, Fergus. You are a brilliant man but there are something s that you just won’t see at times. Your son will be back and my captives will be safe and sound in Tamlyn Palace,” Amaranthine patted Fergus of Sirle’s cheek as she spoke. Fergus gave her a look that said people didn’t normally patt his cheek but he did not look displeased.
Hexel could not see more than that. The guards with Hexel tied her to the back of a horse and sent Hexel towards her fate. The horses traveled over hills and thistles with no regard for their passangers. Hexel’s limbs first tingled and then burned. She hurt in places that seemed to exist in some far away place. She could hardly move when they finally arrived.
Amaranthine practically gragged Hexel into a large pavillion. “Please,” the older woman said, “have some wine and refresh yourself.”
“I don’t want wine,” Hexel told her. “I want to know why I’m here and what you intend to do.”
“Good things come to those who wait.”
“Waiting will not change the outcome.”
“Guess, then.”
“I cannot begin to imagine!”
“I will tell you a story. There is a single mountain range between two lands.”
Hexel opened her mouth, closed it. She began to see where Amaranthine was going with her tale. Then she whispered, “A very high mountain range.”
“Very high. But for a man who conquered ice palaces in the north and princes who follow the sun in the south, no mountain border is too high. He will take the land in peace or he will conquer it. I would guess that only rumors of magic gave him a second thought about attacking.”
Hexel’s throat had gone too dry to swallow. “From what I’ve seen you’re right. The king is in awe of magic.”
“So you see,” Amaranthine said in conclusion. “You must understand. I have no choice.”
Amaranthine saw Hexel swallow, muscles in her long throat sliding beneath her skin.
“What dangers?” the king asked, his brows pulled harshly together. “I thought this land was safe. The only daanger I could see was Fergus himself.”
“The land has its own sorcery. It conjures unexpected things, like dreams do but unlike dreams, you cannot wake from them; if you are challenged, you must act.”
The younger womanís face lost some of its color but Amaranthine ignored Hexel and continued on, “The land itself has peculiar powers; they are unpredictable and not always safe. You never know when and where a tale will become true.”
“This feels more like a nightmare come to life.”
“I am asking for your help. I will take it if you refuse to give it.”
“There are things that I won’t do: invisable weapons, secret tunnels built before the dawn, spies turned into falcons. Shape-changing is a difficult and dangerous thing. I will build a wall and make it impenitrable to armies. I will chase away bandits and make stolen items cry out for owners. I will make ivy rise up to defend its home. There are things I will do to help but my good will has a limit.”
“I could turn your blood to fire. I can force you to watch as I send Thurrin Ysig to his doom. I could transport him to a distant star. I could send a dragon to bring him where I will.”
“Thurrin is not defenseless,” Hexel reminded the bard.
“He has no power against the red star.”
Hexel’s face changed, expression melting through the set, icy cast of it. Amaranthine touched Hexelís wet cheek. “I canít remember,” she murmured, “the last time I cried.” She eased Hexel onto the cushions of a bench. Then she stood beside the weeping woman, one hand resting on a trembling shoulder. “We each follow our heart’s desire and pursue it blindly.”
Hexel nodded and said through her tears, “You have grown blind to the suffering of others.”
“Think of all the good we can do!”
“This was supposed to be simple! It should have been as simple a matter as putting on a dress but the wants of kings and men change quickly and simple things rarely stay so.”
“The king thinks to make a place for you but I have other plans and my wants do not change as his do.”
Amaranthine turned then and followed the tug of magic. They had spent a day and a half of a night in a windowless tent. Things appeared and disappeared at random. Amaranthine sent knights for water, for candles, for a book on a shelf beside the raven. Each time Hexel blinked, the room had changed. Shadows beyond the single candle stretched, it seemed, across the entire city. The enchantress was making wind, stars. The air smelled of pitch, of earth, of water. Hexel heard rivers in the black beyond the candle. She heard a hawkís cries, a wolf howl. The room had vanished, it seemed; the world no longer existed outside of the pavillion. Yet when Amaranthine call for something, the door always opened where it once had, as though the door stood waiting on a boulder, or between two trees in some vast, wild land. The pavillion must have once belonged to a mad man.
“You’ll kill yourself working like this. Is the king of Sirle worth so much?”
“His missing eye sees things that no one else can see. Power like that must be used but I think you know enough about me now to know that I would not kill myself.”
“How can you use that amount of power without risk?” Hexel asked in awe. Her hands shook just thinking about touching that amount of power.
“Only about half this torrent is from me,” Amaranthine explained. “The other half comes from here and there. The land itself holds magic here.”
“Taking magic from the land is no easy task. It is near impossible.”
“What was done once is possible again.” Amaranthine pulled on her powers then, the world around Hexel changed focus and all color moved to one point. Her concentration wavered and could only follow the colors and lights.
“You’re taking power from more than the land. You’re taking power from me!”
“Your power is a small, untrained thing. I am barrowing your concentration. Your strength will remain intact.” Hexel felt a light touch sorting her thoughts. Isolated moments, past events, rose unbidden in her mind: studying late at night by candle light before entering the Society, Thurrin speaking softly to her in the cold dark of the cave, changing shape in the back of a wagon, waking up to find friends or villians surrounding her…”
Hexel knew what Amaranthine was doing then and what she was looking for. Hexel closed off all her thoughts until the strange feel of another mind shifted away from her familiar one like darkness, forced to stay near shadows.
“You have more skill than I was lead to believe,” Amaranthine admitted.
Hexel did not seem to hear. It was as though she had stepped into another world. Her body and its needs were still distant. She did not notice the crackling fire or the food servents must have brought.
She opened her eyes, bunking at the salt tears of sweat that ran into them, and the black eyes of the bard gazed deep into her wet eyes. A blade flashed in the corner of her eye; a sound split through her dry throat. Turning, fleeing away from the smoke, the agony of her weariness, the sear of the knife, she stumbled into the world beyond the sea of tents. Wind snapped out of the sky. She heard the high voices of the wind and knew their strength.
“The land feels your probing as I do. The spirits there are not taking kindly to your intrusions. The land itself is giving me power to stop you; making me something else. I am the Taker of Secrets.”
Darkness closed in on Hexel then and she fainted. She opened her eyes to the fog of dreams.
“Where am I now?” A voice called, echoing in the distance. Hexel thought she knew that voice…
“Melody?”
The voice became a silhouette and the figureís hands moved to its mouth. “I thought I recognized your voice! Where are we?”
“I think that this is a dream but our magic makes it more than that,” Hexel tried to explain, more for her own benefit than to help Melodyís confusion. The expression on Melodyís face told Hexel half of nothing but anyone else could see that Melody was still confused. “My magic changed when I fought the Bard. Itís like the magic part of me just woke up and the knowledge appeared when I needed it. Has your magic changed? Did the bard attack you?”
“I am,” Melody was suddenly shy about saying it out loud. “Ian and I are traveling to Sirle. Fergus of Sirle did something to me and we need go to Sirle to reverse it. I think that whatever he did let me get to this place. How is this more than a dream? Should I be worried about something jumping out to attack me or kidnapping me to travel out of this world?”
Hexel blinked, not sure what she should be more surprised about. “What made you think of those two things?”
“I got so scared that I just aid whatever came to my head.” Melody smelled the fine, pine chilled scented air of this new world. She almost felt peaceful before she turned to Hexel and asked, “How do we leave this place?”
“We should just be able to stop using magic,” Hexel told her in a calm voice.
“I don’t know if I can…”
“Try to relax, like you do when you sleep.”
Melody did as instructed and her form winked out. Hexel was about to follow when her form reappeared. “Do you think you can do this on purpose?”
“I am sure I can.”
“Let’s meet in this strange place at sunset tomorrow. There are so many things I need to tell you but I canít tell you the whole thing right now,” Melody was not sure how such things were normally done but the words left her mouth before she had time to think if they were improper or not.
“That works for me. Thurrin and I are prisoners of the Bard now. She ís working with Fergus of Sirle!”
“I knew that Fergus and the Bard were working together but I did not know that the two of you were with him. I thought you were safe on Ysig!”
“I thought Thurrin would be on Ysig. You have always traveled with the wind.”
“I’m not free to travel the wind. Not lately. The world is pushing me this way and that.”
“Circumstance and responsibility force us all one way or anther. You and I have been trying to ignore both for so long that we’ve forgotten.”
“I’ll work to make my own circumstances and come back here to meet you tomarrow.”
~**~
Thurrin was pushed forward by Kalin for the third time in as many minutes. Fergus of Sirle wanted to keep Thurrin close but he had sent Hexel and the bard away. Fear and loneliness almost overwhelmed him when they first left. Now he only felt annoyed.
“I thought you’d be in a hurry to reach your island,” Fergus commented.
“You think Craten would give himself up for me? He might be desperate but he is not stupid.”
“Desperate men often make mistakes. I’m not going to your island expecting to bring Craten back. I think that it would help your brother to know the way things stand. Your brother will not work against me if he knows your life stands in the balance.”
“The bard told you that Craten would work against you but the bard lies. She told me to find a goblet with a ruby star-burst. She told Syon Med to find a woman trapped in a tower. She told Melody that her family would be safe if she sayed in a tower but it was all lies. The goblet didn’t help Craten and Syon only found a woman in a tower who didn’t want to leave. The bard is playing a game of herown. Her plan with you may just be part of a bigger picture.”
“Every woman has her secrets. The bard may have more than others but Amaranthine would not go back on the pact she has with me.”
“You would trust the word of a liar?”
Kalin gave Thurrin another jab. “Do not doubt the word of Fergus of Sirle or of the Bard Amaranthine.”
“I am only repeating what I know.”
“You don’t know as much as you think,” Fergus growled.
“I know not to trust the bard. Look up at the sky if you don’t believe me!”
“I’ll gage you if you continue to speak ill of the bard,” Kalin said with another shove.
“There is no need for such force, Captain Kalin. Thurrin Ysig will come with us. He would not miss the chance to speak with his brother.”
Thurrin stared his defiance at Fergus. “I’ll tell him what you’re planning. He won’t fall into your trap. Craten is smarter than me and if anyone can out-wit your bard it’s him.”
“He is no threat to the bard of Sron. The prophesies say that he is a threat to me but you will remidie that.”
“The bard of Sron helps herself and that’s it. She would not have bothered telling you about Craten unless she wanted you to know. She’s protecting herself, not you.”
Kalin gave Thurrin another shove and pulled out two long kerchiefs. The captain was about to use them to gage the islander but Fergus’s voice cut through the scuffle.
“That will not be necessary, Captain. Escorte Thurrin Ysig to the front of the company. I think he’ll be more comfortable there.”
Thurrin was pulled and shoved to the front of the line. Captain Kalin made sure that he kept up the pace to stay there in front. Thurrin let his mind wonder and did not bother paying attention to his pace or even where he was going ñ his minder would take care of that.
“I thought you were loyal to Sirle and to Fergus. The bard will not help your king or his kindgom,” Thurrin tried again.
“I trust my king and he has put his trust in the bard.”
Thurrin could see that Kalin had made up his mind and that no argument would make him change it. He stopped talking and focused on the road before him amd back to his thoughts.
The very trees around him seemed to talk. They whispered to him in sincere voices that felt more real than the voices of Kalin and Fergus. Run, they said. Escape, they whispered in voices that echoed in his head. Run where and to what? He wanted to ask but the trees did not give an answer. He wanted to look for faces under the drooping moss but Captain Kalin made sure that he stayed on track.
“Let us say that I don’t trust this bard,” Kalin broke into Thurrin’s thoughts. “How would I go about planning around her?”
“Do not rely on the bard. Always have a back up plan. You should talk to your king and tell him your concerns.”
“You did not trust Regus Arram with your concerns,” Kalin snapped at Thurrin.
“Regus Arram was never my king.”
“He was always your king. You just never accepted it.”
“My father earned the right to be king but Regus Arram never did. His army went in and killed any who challenged him!”
“That is how kings rule.”
“I may never have a king then. I’ll pay taxes and my island will be ruled by someone but he will be a king on paper only. He will not reign in the hearts of the people.”
Kalin threw his head back and laughed. “Your king wants to speak with you. He could be the reason King Fergus speared your life.”
“Fergus of Sirle spared my life so that he could trick my brother.”
Kalin shook his head. “That is only a story he had us tell to get you to co-operate. My king knew that you would come if it meant seeing your island and your brother.”
“Then where are you taking me?” Thurrin asked in a strange mix of anger and curiousity.
“To speak with Regus Arram.”
Thurrin saw the knights then. The golden towers on blue flags glistened in the distance. Thurrin wasn’t sure how he missed it. “We’re nowhere near Glavinore.”
“Regus Arram has come to us,” King Fergus annouced as he rode up beside them. “He knew that you would be unhappy about coming to him so we agreed to make it a little surprise.”
“Regus Arram is on your side now?” Thurrin tried to pull away but Captain Kalin’s armored arm made sure that he did not go far.
“You saw his kights at the ruins. His new queen is keeping him in line but Regus Arram still has his doubts. Bringing you to him will show good favor.”
“And Craten?”
“Your island will be dealt with in good time.”
Thurrin could hear his heart beat pound in his ears and shadow grew at the corners of his eyes. He never knew how he made it to stand before Regus Arram.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet me here. I can see that you are as goodas your word. King Fergus and Captain Kalin, please enjoy refreshments in my command tent while I attend to the prisoner and question him.”
Kalin and Fergus left him and knights with glittering towers came from nowhere to take their place. He was pushed into a low tent with three polls taking up the bulk of the space. Thurrin was surprised to find that the knights did not push him to one of these polls but released his arms and let him wonder the tent freely. The knights stood beside their king, ready to defend him if Thurrin suddenly attacked.
“I have given you little reason to love me over the years, Thurrin Ysig. I can only hope that Fergus of Sirle and the Bard of Sron have given you even less reason.”
“You have no reason to trust me. Why would you ask Fergus of Sirle to bring me to you?”
“Syon Med says that he trusts you. He came to Glavinore with dire news about my wife.”
“Syon Med knows more about what happened to your wife than I do. I assumed that the Bard of Sron lied from the beginning but Syon insisted that what she had said about the queen was true. Syon believed that your wife was locked away in a tower and that the woman you’re married to now is an imposter,” Thurrin told the king in as quiet a voice as he could manage.
“You don’t need to sound happy about it, Thurrin Ysig,” Regus Arram said with a firm shake of his head.
“As you’ve said, we have no reason to trust one another,” Thurrin reminded him.
“We are both here and the Bard of Sron has betrayed us both.”
Thurrin could only nodd. “The Bard of Sron has betrayed us both. Syon Med and I both want to stop her. What is it that you want?”
“I don’t want to be some Bard’s pawn. Will you work with Syon Med to stop the Bard? I have an arrangement with Fergus of Sirle. He wants my army but I will give you every resource I have if you will stop that bard!”
Thurrin could not keep hope from growing in him with each heartbeat. “I would be happy to but I doubt that Fergus of Sirle would let me leave.”
“Fergus has been trying to buy my favor and I think he will give you to me.”
“Fergus knows our history. He knows that I hate you and he might leave us alone out of spite.”
“If Fergus wanted only spite than he would have told me the truth about my wife. He would enjoy watching all I love become a lie,” Regus Arram argued.
“What made you believe Syon Med?”
“Iíve known Syon all my life and he has saved my life countless times. Syon would not use truth or lies to break my heart. I know that Syon believed his words and that he was working to save me. When a man came to me with nothing but trust, truth and love, how can I not believe him?”
Thurrin Ysig could only nod. “I never thought I could work with a knight of Glavinore but I would walk across the world for Syon Med. He saved both Craten and me. Syon saved my island and my brother. I owe him everything.”
Now it was Regus Arramís turn to nod. “Syon Med is my greatest knight. If anyone can save the world, it is him.”
“He may need a little help with such a big job,” Thurrin pointed out dryly. His eyes searched for Syon Med but he found nothing but green and gold and silver swords. He could not see any of the broken towers, only golden ones. “Where is Syon?”
“He is waiting outside of camp. I will need to send you to him,” Regus Arram decided as he considered something else. “Your ride may not be comfortable but it will get you away from Fergus and to Syon.”
“The trip here was not comfortable either. I expected nothing else.”
Regus slapped his face and punched the air from him then. Thurrin tried to use his hands to block the blows but the movement only made Regus madder. The king yelled insults that were barely words. Thurrin began to think that the Regus Arram he had been talking to was only a dream. The Regus Arram who beat him was the only real one!
“Get him out of my sight!” the king of Glavinore finally yelled. Knights with golden towers on their surcoats moved to obey orders and Thurrin found that he was hogtied on the back of a horse after a dizzyingly quick scuffle.
“Where are you taking me?”
Thurrin could feel the knight roll his eyes before he answered, “Iím only following orders. If it were up to me, I’d kill you here and be done with it!”
Thurrin was still trying to piece together Regus Arram’s words. One minute he was arranging for Thurrin to meet with Syon Med and the next minute Regus has Thurrin thrown on the back of a horse to an execution! Except, no one had killed him yet and Regus had never given orders for it to be done… What had Regus ordered? “Do you know Syon Med?” Thurrin asked his guard.
“Syon Med is one of the most decorated knights in Glavinore. He’s famous! Syon Med would have killed you without the king having to order it!”
“You won’t kill me though?”Thurrin felt like he had to ask the question even if the answer did seem obviious.
“I’m not one of the king’s closests friends. I need to wait for orders before I start to kill prisoners.”
“What did the king order you to do with me?”
“Not to kill you,” the guard said sullenly.
“Were you ordered not to tell me anything or is that your choice?”
“The king don’t get to decide everything. He trusts his knights to think for themselves!”
Thurrin let the moment lasps into silence. He would have to trust that Regus’s men were loyal even if he did not trust Regus Arram. There was no where else to go and Syon Med would not be able to find him if he tried to run. As annoying as these knights were, he would have to stay.
“Ho!” A booming voice called. Thurrin would have assumed that the voice belonged to another knight but Thurrin knew that voice. “I’ll take the prisoner from here.”
“You old enough to handle him on your own, lad?”
“Of course! I’m almost sixteen!” Craten’s voice sounded indignant but Thurrin knew that his younger brother was much too pleased with himself to be anything other than proud. “Syon Med sent me himself!” Craten handed a paper to the two guards.
“I see,” the guard said, reading the note. “The king himself said that I was not to give this prisoner to anyone but Syon Med.”
“You have his seal right there,” Craten said pointing.
“Thank you, Private Craten,” Syon said immerging from the underbrush. “I will take the prisoner from here.”
“Sir Syon Med!”
“There’s no need to shout,” Craten said without missing a beat. “We need to keep a low profile. Sir Syon Med’s presence was meant to be a secret.”
“I can keep a secret,” the guard said before running off.
Craten ran to Thurin as soon as the other knights had left. “How did you end up like that?”
“You can thank Regus Arram,” Thurrin said as Craten helped him rub feeling back into his limbs.
“Regus said that he’d send you straight to me,” Syon said in a concerned voice.
“He had to get me away from Fergus of Sirle and his bard first,” Thurrin told them the whole story. “The two of you are supposed to be on Ysig. What are you doing here?”
“I am sorry, Thurrin but I could not stay in Ysig,” Syon confessed. “I could not leave Regus trapped in their lies! I had to return to Glavinore. Ysig was safe in your brother’s hands.”
“Yet here my brother stands, also off of Ysig.”
“Don’t get mad,” Craten said with that smile. “You know I belong here. Ysig is safe enough in father’s care. He has good people to look after him but you don’t have anyone to help you.”
“You and Syon were supposed to be helping me by taking care of Ysig Island!”
“Ysig isn’t in danger,” Craten argued. “You know I wouldn’t leave our father alone if there were any threat.”
Thurrin took a calming breath. “I know that. You are Ysig’s heart and you would not leave if there were danger to her. Syon Med might just convense you to leave to save Glavinore but you would not leave the island in danger.”
“Don’t blame everything on Syon,” Craten chaided.
“He saved you and Ysig once. I suppose I owe him a favor.”
Syon’s face reddened as he broke in, “You know this isn’t about Glavinore and Ysig anymore. We have the same enemy now!”
“That’s what your king said too and I believed him and he did send me to you so I guess he believed.”
“I know that Regus Arram lied in the past but he’s not lying now. His moods come suddenly like a storm on the ocean but you saw the ruins and the heart just like he did.”
“I saw Glavinore’s army guarding it,” Thurrin reminded them. Syon Med’s face darkened at the words but Thurrin was quick to reassure him, “I’m not blaming Regus Arram but I wanted to remind you who we can trust. Regus says that he’ll help us but he can’t move against Fergus of Sirle openly. An army of Glavinore is too obvious but his best knight can move in the shadows. You’re the best chance Regus can give us.”
“I am the most skilled knight in Glavinore and the first duty of every knight is to help those who cannot help themselves. Regus Arram trained with the knights. He knows what needs to be done even if he though he can’t do it himself.”
Craten looked from Thurrin to Syon. “Why can’t he do it himself? And don’t say politics! Even I know the answer’s more than that.”
“Politics are complicated but I’ll try to simplify it for you,” Thurrin promised his brother. “Regus Arram is trying to trick Fergus into thinking that they are allies but Fergus will know Regus is liying if he sees Regus working with us. Regus can only trick Fergus if he does not see.”
“I understand that part but I would think that the trick would be better if Regus told Fergus he was working with us to get information. Regus could tell Fergus that itís us heís spying on!” Craten was clearly excited by the idea but Thurrin and Syon both saw holes in his plan.
“Regus isn’t that good of an actor,” Syon told the brothers. “He might be able to make Fergus think theyíre on the same side but he canít become a double agent and pull it off.”
“It would not be real,” Craten reminded Syon.
“Fergus would have to think it was real and he would know it was a lie if Regus tried it.”
“Regus Arram helped me escape, believed Syonís word and gave us what resources he could,” Thurrin reminded Craten. “Regus has given us all he can. Itís up to us to make it work.”
~**~
“You’re sure about this, Melody?” Ian asked for what must have been the hundredth time. “I know you are nervous but you do not need to be.”
“You are going off to fight a battle but youíre worried about me staying home and sleeping half the day?”
“Youíve always been fearless and that worries me. I know you’re planning on running off and visiting Helxel. Hexel is not known for her common science either. You two will have no problems getting into trouble.”
“There ís nowhere safe left but this is the closest we can get.”
Ian sighed and nodded. “I know that. I just wish that I could keep you safe.” Ian pulled her to him as he spoke and infolded her in a hug.
“I wíll be careful and Hexel will look after us both. She can be odd at times but she is reliable in important things.”
“When she thinks itís important,” Ian agreed.
“You and I are important to her.”
Ian nodded. “You are important to her. I am not trying to judge her but I do not like leaving you even in the safest hands. You need rest.”
“This is the only way to keep safe,” Melody whispered to her husband. “The waterspirits might not hurt me but they have plans of their own. I would rather leave my fate to Hexel than with them.”
“You know that I agree with you and I know that this is the best option but I still donít like it. Promise me you wíll be careful and that youíll come back if something unexpected happens,” Ian begged.
“I wíll promise if you will.”
Ian knew that he couldnít make that promise and that he was being unfair expecting her to make it but that did not keep his heart from racing in fear. Ian sighed, “Say hello to Hexel for me and make sure that she knows you’re coming. Those dreams are real and you know that but Hexel might not.”
“You act like Hexel is an idiot sometimes. She’s an eccentric, not a fool.”
“I’m just on edge. You have me to loose but I have you and that seems much worse.”
“I can be impatient sometimes but I’m never reckless,” Melody promised. “I’ll be careful.”
“Thank you. I’ll have an easier time facing the waterspirits if I’m not worried about you too.”
“You’re smarter than they give you credit for. Just remember that truth and you’ll be fine.”
“My mother used to say that.” The memory no longer brought pain, only a dull sadness mixed with a light fondness. All memories of his mother brought the same feeling. He still missed her terribly but memories made him feel closer to her instead of reminding him that she was far away.
“Your mother’s heart would soar to know that her grandchild fullfilled her vow,” the waterspirit sang as he entered the room.
“I’m sure.”
“The army awaits you. I have no doubt that her soul would sing to see you at the head of her people and at the lead of so renouned an army. Orphelia was never vengful but she had an inner strength that could chase bullies and vegabounds away. She will be able to rest once you bring justice to Fergus of Sirle.”
Ian looked at the waterspirit strangly. “How well did you know my mother?”
“Not as well as I would have liked to but Orphelia made everyone feel like a friend.”
“Why would she promise to have her child learn magic with you if the two of you weren’t friends?” Ian could guess why but he wanted to keep the waterspirit talking. Melody did not tell the spirits about leaving and Ian needed to distract them to keep her safe.
“Your mother wanted nothing but the best for you and when it comes to magic the waterspirits are the best! The magic within you comes from us so we are the best to teach you,” the waterspirit argued.
“My mother is not a waterspirit but she got magic from you… how can that be?”
“Your mother was given one curse and one boon. Her blessing was magic.”
“Her curse?”
“I will leave that to your imagination.”
~Ten~
Melody left the waterspirit realm without looking back. She knew that Ian could take care of himself and only felt guilty about leaving him in that space of time between waking and sleeping. Still, she could not help him at all if she were dead.
Every movement it made sent a pulse of excitement through her. There was fear there too but excitement covered all other emotions. Melody knew that there was danger but there was hope too. The waterspirits wanted children and moments for their own reasons. Melody was not ready to trust them with something so precious.
There were little moments in life that were gifts: the sound of a lover’s voice, a whispered name, a smile and music of a laugh. Each second was a gift and Melody wanted to take those gifts back.
The job was a big one but Melody knew that Hexel was up for the challenge. Hexel and helped her in the past and she would help now.
Melody repeated those words to herself as she began to travel. The light of the red commit shone down on her as she relaxed into the space between where Hexel waited. She knew that she had traveled safety when the light went out.
~**~
Hexel followed Amaranthine closely, waiting for the older woman to let her guard down or to make a mistake. Hexel need to stay close to her… no one could be watched accurately from far off! Hexel needed to be close and Amaranthine wanted her close for the same reason.
“Tell me how Master Gawks is getting on, Hexel.”
Hexel paled but answered in a clear voice, “Gawks is dead.”
“How unsettling! I had a score to settle with him but no matter now,” Amaranthine spoke quickly as if she could swat away bad news with words. “How are Scholars Madden and Hamish?”
“They are both well. Kelson should have told you about Madden. She sent us.”
“Yes… Kelson did mention that. I will have to see to Madden.”
“Is your revenge going to be on every scholar in the Phoenix Society or are you singling out certain scholars?”
“A little of both,” Amaranthine said with a smile. “There will be a punishment to all scholars and then smaller reminders to certain individuals who need it.”
“Most of them think you’re dead. Madden knows the truth but not many others.”
“They will all learn the truth soon enough.”
“You know how protective the Society can be. They’ll use all their resources when you tell them even half of your plan. The Society doesn’t like to get involved but those rules go out the window when one of their own messes with the dynamics of a culture. You’re plotting to change a power regime and to overthrow rules. The Society won’t stand still!”
Amaranthine scoffed. “Those are all empty words!”
“The Society will come for you!”
“They’ll stop when they see you!” Amaranthine sang in triumph. “As you said, the scholars are very protective of their students. They will not risk any harm coming to you.”
Hexel shook her head. “They would rather I died than risk a whole world.”
“That may have been true in the past but not now… they follow a different path now.”
Kelson stopped walking beside Hexel. “That is not the plan you told me when we began this.”
“Plans change… People change… I’ve changed.”
“The Society will change you.”
“Are you backing out of our deal?” Amaranthine asked Kelson with venom in her voice.
“I’m in too deep to back out now. You know that.”
Kelson had to prove his mettle a few seconds later when a hologram of the Society Scholars appeared.
“What is the meaning of this?” Madden shouted.
“You’re too late! The Society has lost its purpose! You cannot move without endangering this world or your student.”
“Young Hexel was not sent alone. No one would send a child to take on a former scholar with the power to destroy worlds! Full members were sent along with student Hexel.”
“I’m sorry to have to formally give my resignation,” Kelson said, stepping closer to the hologram so that he could be seen.
“Scholar Kelson!” Madden’s eyes went hard. “It’s unfortunate that you’ve placed your loyalties where you have. Luckily you are not the only scholar sent to deal with our rogue sister.”
Chaos seemed to break loose then. Shadows became men and Amaranthine seemed shadow, drifting in and out of sight. It was battle and it was mad. Hexel knew that this was her chance to leave. She slip out shadow-silent but visible. No one look notice.
~**~
The Taker of Secrets went to Pellior Palace to hide the key to Umbria and Sirle. The palace was old. No longer a house of kings, it was surrounded by orchards of apples, pears and nuts. Farmers came there to hunt game and tend to the trees which were left for the poor. No one blinked an eye when Hexel came to the orchards. She was dressed in rags and carried a wailing bundle. She did not look anything like the second most powerful magic-user in the five kingdoms. Hexel looked like a beggar who saw the tower in the palace as nothing more than a place to rest. Hexel worked hard to make herself look that way.
The rags were not hard to find but clothes were not a disguise. Much more went into a proper disguise than simple clothes. Hexel found berries to dye her cheeks and give them a flushed, ill look. The hardest thing to find was the sap that made her hair fall out. No one could imagine that such a wretched creature had once lived in the king’s household. No one would look twice at the tiny baby she carried and no one would see that the infant was truly a prince.
Melody had called her old friend, knowing that her magic could not keep something so precious away from the likes of Fergus of Sirle. The old, one-eyed king longed for stability, not to help his kingdom or to comfort his son but to bring himself power.
Ian had warned her when they married but she had been too blind with love to see. Ian had saved her after the knight had released her from the tower and broken its magic.
The knight, Syon Med, was a kind man but he did not seem to care that she did not want to leave the tower. Her safety in that place was only temporary. Umbria was safe while she was in the tower’s walls. Her father had arranged for her to marry a stranger to keep Umbria out of harm but Melody could not imagine a happy life with a man she did not know.
Syon Med had fallen into the opposite disaster when the king of Glavinore’s new wife revealed that she was not a princess but a monster from nightmares. Syon was desperate for a way to save the king. Melody’s tower seemed close enough to the solution he needed; it was a tower with a trapped princess after all! Any tower with any princess would do until Syon met Thurrin Ysig.
Thurrin was looking for a tower with a dragon but only one thing mattered to Syon; Thurrin called Ysig Island home. Ysig rebelled once and almost killed King Regus Arram more than fifteen years ago.
Syon saw enemies in the new queen and in Thurrin Ysig. The threat of the queen seemed far away but Thurrin Ysig was right in front of him. Thurrin was there and Syon Med would have one chance to fight the islander before he found his dragon to fight for him. Regus Arram barely survived the attacking islanders. Thurrin and Syon both knew that he could not survive a dragon; it was out of the question.
Syon saw the dragon and went after it, leaving Melody on her own. That was when Ian of Sirle, the man she was to marry, found her. He looked half-starved and his hair stuck at wild angles. Melody would have called him a mad-man if he did not have the gentlest eyes she had ever seen. Ian never laid a finger on anyone, even when they hurt him. Melody felt pity and compassion mover her to help the man. The mad man changed to Ian of Sirle before her eyes then. Ian went from being a crazed thing chasing a peacock to becoming a man running from what Melody feared most. Melody saw that she was running from the same thing.
Melody fell in love with Ian of Sirle then, when she saw him at his most vulnerable and knew that she felt the same. Her father could not have been more happy. It was what he had always wanted for her and for his kingdom. Things in Umbria were looking good but their troubles in Sirle were just beginning. Ian had run from his father and the king was in no mood to forgive. He declared Ian and Melody both criminals and started a seige on Umbria.
Soldiers from Sirle came to take the child Ian and Melody had away. Melody could not deny that her child was no longer safe in Umbria. The young mother could only think of one person who was kind enough to care for a baby and powerful enough to defeat Fergus of Sirle if he needed to… me, her old tutor, Hexel.
~**~
Hexel knew a thing or two about traveling. She knew how to travel to distant worlds in the blink of an eyes but the truly wonderful thing the Phoenix Society had taught her was how to find new worlds. Poets like to say that there is nothing new under the sun but none of them had seen the things that Hexel had.
Being stuck on one world wore at her. It felt good to be moving again. Travel was what she was made to do. Melody seemed intent on spoiling Hexel’s fun and Hexel would have blamed her if Melody did not look so care worn and frayed.
“We need to take the child to the waterspirits. They will teach him magic.”
“There are good places for him on other worlds,” Hexel tried to argue.
“The waterspirits helped us when we were in need. They asked to be allowed to train the child.”
“We know the challenges you face,” the waterspirit said when they finally arrived. “You and your husband have been true to your word and so we will help you again. Our army will follow Ian of Sirle to the ruins under the peaks to steal Fergus’s heart.”
“You ran from them at the beginning. The waterspirits could not be trusted before Oberon was born and now you think they’ve changed?”
“We have a new enemy now… Umbria has a new enemy; a powerful enemy.”
“You’re talking about Fergus of Sirle? Fergus has been an enemy to you and your husband for decades. This isn’t anything new,” Hexel reminded her. “What is making you change your mind so suddenly?”
“The magic is surfacing,” Melody confided. “The curse is effecting my magic and making it go haywire. I cannot control my magic… It’s not safe.”
“The key is safe in Pellinor Palace,” Hexel soothed. “You could be safe with the Phoenix Society. You have options, Melody. You and Ian.”
“Ian is not with the waterspirits anymore. Fergus is chasing him and he is not safe,” Melody insisted. “I saw it all in a dream.”
“Then, we’ll have to get him back,” Hexel said the words like promise.
~**~
Fergus rode his charger, his army traveling behind him, toward a war with an enemy that the men had never seen. Fergus himself had only seen them in a mirror. Still, he recognized them when he saw the waterspirits before him. Humanoid figures rose from the water of the Pellior River.
“You have nerve showing yourself in my kingdom! I told you many years ago that your kind is not welcome in Sirle!”
“You forget that your queen, and now your son, is one of our kind!”
“We spoke of this already! You cannot have him!” Fergus wanted to ride his charger over them but he knew it had no chance of harming them.
“Your son cannot move past our reach and the star-burst cup will be ours!”
“My son will never help you! You’ll never even lay eyes on that cup!”
“How do you think you’ll get it? Send out your son?”
“Craten Ysig will give the star-burst cup to me.”
“Craten Ysig can hardly even look at you. His loyalty is to his brother and his island.”
“You think you can win the young sorcerer over with water and words?” Fergus let the scorn in his voice shine through clearly.
“Craten Ysig is not our concern, Ian of Sirle is,” the waterspirits sang. “Ian can retrieve the star-burst cup and use it against you. We don’t even need to force or trick him. He hates you so much that he will do what we ask without any goading.”
“You’ve tricked my son and stolen him away but he is more prepared than you think.”
The waterspirit laughed. “No one in Sirle imagined that Ian would ever take your place. You never taught him to rule and never sent any one to teach him politics. The boy was never meant to rule. You had no confidence in him but we waterspirits see all that he could be! He’ll let us use him because you never did.”
“My son has many talents but getting a star-burst cup as never been one of them. Ian will never betray Craten and Thurrin Ysig by stealing from them. He is of no use to you,” Fergus growled.
“The prince of Sirle won’t need to betray the Ysig brothers to get the cup. The brothers trust your son and will give the cup to him.”
“You like tricking people and pulling strings but these boys will force your hand. They have skills of their own.”
“You haven’t seen a fraction of our power! But you will see.” With that ominous threat, the waterspirits left.
~**~
Hexel moved through the darkened palace, looking for any clues to where the prince of Sirle could have gone. Dust lay on the tables and shelves disturbed but chairs were knocked down and the floor was scuffed. Hexel could see that a fight took place here a short time ago but the scuffle barely deserved the name. The fighters must have been small… an injured Ian could not have put up much of a fight.
He could hardly stand on his own now but fighting was still far from impossible. Imagining her helpless friend sent ice into Hexel’s heart. She knew that Melody would take the prince’s disappearance even harder.
“Who would just take the prince from his home?” Hexel asked herself. She could only think of one answer: Fergus of Sirle would.
Amaranthine had filled Fergus’s heart and head with prophesies of doom. Fergus would associate his son with the coming doom weather Amaranthine linked the two or not. The next question was where Fergus would take his son.
“Fergus took Ian to Tamlyn Palace before and maybe he took the prince there again…”
Hexel raced to get from Pellior Palace to the river, where a boat could take her to Tamlyn Palace. She kept her eyes open on the boat ride, looking for Sirle’s knights. The area looked abandoned. There were peasants in rags but no knights. Hexel knew better than most that anyone could dress in odd clothes and become anyone. She kept a careful eye on each peasant but they all acted as a normal peasant would.
Goosebumps made the hair on the back of Hexel’s neck stand on end. She could not shake the feeling that she was being watched. The lack of knights should have made her bold or even confident but Hexel could not let her guard down. She felt sure that Fergus was in that palace.
The boat made its way around the bend and Hexel was proven right… Fergus of Sirle was there waiting for her.
~**~
Hexel ran. Abruptly, she could see again. She was on her knees, clinging to stone, trembling as if she had been running for her life through the maze of palaces, trapped in this mysterious place. Fergus had turned away from her to watch the enemy come.
Arrows flew fast, and they flew straight to Craten Ysig. He could not seem to move; he could only watch it, his head uplifted. He tried to speak; he could not. The arrow’s silver points shone like ritual blades; they were open, curved, and dropping toward Thurrin’s heart. Hexel’s face was turned toward the archers; she too struggled to speak.
Melody, freed from the king of Sirle’s attention, walked the maze in her mind to what mysteries the dragon had shone them. Melody called Hexel with her eyes and spoke to her from that place that only close friends know. Power swept through her, from the land and in to the Taker of Secrets.
Hexel shook free of the web of minds that held her, and cried to the land itself, “No! Not Craten It’s Fergus who put this spell on you! Remember!” The wind moved arrows away from Craten, making them fall harmlessly to the ground.
Hexel opened her magic and tore a voice out of something faraway and screamed, falling as if she had been shot. Ian, his face rigid with fury, rolled to his feet and leaped in a single unbroken movement, at his father. Fergus, startled, nearly unleashed mage-fire; he pulled it back quickly as Ian’s body struck him. He staggered, regained his balance and gripped his son. The back of his hand, coupled with the weight of a sword hilt, whipped across Ian’s face. He fell like a star out of the air, and lay still. A few of the Sirle knights stirred; Melody heard an in-drawn breath. Fergus met their eyes, said calmly, “It was necessary. He will understand.” He looked at Melody and said, “the cup.”
Her eyes flicked at Hexel, leaning drained and helpless against the stones. She bowed her head. Something small, burnished with amber fire dropped into her hand. Fergus, his eyes on it, stepped toward her. She flung the amber at his feet. It exploded with a beautiful enchantment. For a moment Fergus vanished among them: a scattering of garnet roses, a diamond snowfall.
But as he picked himself out of the spell he had made, the mages held Melody, shaped her back into the waning moonlight as she tried to vanish. Fergus, shaking gold leaves out of his hair, stepped across Ian’s body to her. “Perhaps.” he said, “you will give me something to fight after all.” He held her eyes and held out his hand. After a long time, during which she stood like the knights, a standing stone beneath the setting moon, she reached into her pocket for the key to all the dreaming worlds, the world where her child was safe. She followed the path that Hexel had laid and vowed never to give anything to Fergus of Sirle.
~**~
Thurrin followed the knight through a sea of golden towers. Syon Med blended in with the knights of Glavinore without trying and Thurrin just tried to follow Syon’s lead. The golden towers recognised Syon Med as the greatest knight in Glavinore ñ the knight who saved the king’s life ñ and moved out of his way. Thurrin did his best to stay close to Syon and to keep his head down.
Ysig Island had fought Glavinore and its knights a decade ago but some of the knights might still recognize him. Thurrin was a teenager when the battle happened and he had since grown into a young man. Still, Syon Med had known him instantly and he had no doubt that the other knights could do the same. They could recognize him with one look!
Knights saw what they wanted to see. They expected a loyal knight to be traveling with Syon Med. Syon Med had a long reputation. The reputation covered Thurrin along with Syon Med.
“Your vision showed you the heart?” Syon whispered. Thurrin nodded. “Lead me there.”
“The vision was really from Roland’s point of view. I was flying like a dragon. I could only see the ruins from the air. I didn’t even see this walk way!”
“You saw the room the heart was being held in,” Syon reminded him. “Just walk around and look for something familiar.”
Thurrin nodded and started to walk around. None of the doorways look particularly special but Thurrin chose one at random, hoping that something looked familiar.
The room was filled with a green, turning pool. The water felt strangely familiar to Thurrin so he walked closer.
The turning of the water got faster and faster. Thurrin took a step or two back. The water foamed and splashed to the floor. The heard the rush of water getting closer and closer. He ran from the room with seconds to spear. An enormous shadow fell to Thurrin. He looked up and felt his jaw drop in shock.
“Roland?”
Syon Med saw the chaos and ran closer. “A dragon!” The knight screamed in shock as he pulled out his sword.
“Wait, Syon!” Thurrin stood between the knight and the dragon, holding up his hands. “This is Roland, the dragon I told you about!”
Syon’s eyes followed and dragonís form up and up again. “I imagined something quite different,” Syon mumbled. He tried to cover his embarrassment by holding out his hand. “It is good to finally meet you.”
“And you,” Roland agreed. “You have been a curiosity to me for some time. Any knight of Glavinore who could hold back the hate of the prince of Ysig must be mighty indeed.”
“I don’t think that I can take credit for any of that.”
“Roland is right. You see with ancient eyes and you’re the only one who could have seen through the bard. You’re the only one who would save Craten to stop her,” Thurrin argued.
“You would have done all of that!”
“Craten is my brother and Ysig is our heart. Your heart lies in Glavinore but it is Ysig you saved.”
“Ysig and Glavinore are both at risk, despite all of our work!”
“I can help you protect both,” reverberating tones of the dragon’s voice promised. “These ruins hold the heart of Fergus of Sirle. Once you have the heart, he will no longer be a threat to your land.”
Syon and Thurrin both nodded.
“Lead on.”
The dragon made a series of swift, sure movements, each more fluid than the last. Syon and Thurrin scrambled to keep up. The dragon flicked his eyes back at them and slowed a fraction without loosing an ounce of fluidity. Noticing the ruins around him became unimportant while Thurrin focused on the dragon in front of him. Neither Syon nor Thurrin could find their way out of the maze-like structures.
“How could you see anything from the air this far into the city?” Syon asked Thurrin.
It was Roland who answered, “Fergus had the heart moved after his son ran from him.”
“You saw him move it?”
“I can feel the heart with my eye. Like calls like. They both once belonged to Fergus of Sirle.”
“That sounds like the beginning of an amazing story,” Syon’s voice lit with amazement.
“I will tell you the tale after we find the heart. I must concentrate on one thing at a time. Fergus can feel the eye as strongly as I feel the heart. He will know that I am here and it will not take him long to know what I am about.”
“He is far from here,” Thurrin argued.
“He brought you to Regus Arram’s camp. He can’t be that far,” Syon argued.
“We were traveling beneath Sirle looking for the caves and Fergus didn’t feel you then. There must be a distance where the magic stops working.”
“None of my kind have measured the distance but I am usually safe when I fly over Sirle,” Roland tried to explain. “Speed will be our ally.” Roland turned a corner and Thurrin saw a blinding light but felt a wall.
“The heart is in there. I will fly through and bring it out to you.”
“That light might not let you come out, Roland.”
“I have fought that light before. The leviathan lives there.”
“You barely survived the first fight with that monster!”
“I lived once and I can survive again,” Roland assured both men.
The dragon was gone before Syon or Thurrin could argue. Roland reappeared just as suddenly in a red light. The light from the heart took away the light from the red star for a few seconds but the world was back in focus now.
“You have the heart!” Syon said with shock and awe.
“Our journey is not over yet,” Roland reminded the two men.
The two men heard the clang of swords, armor and boots then but the dragon had heard the knights long before that. Roland was tense and ready to fight.
Light flashed off mettle with each sword stroke. The dragon’s fire scared some of them off but the majority of the knights continued forward despite the fire. Red firelight shone off the swords now instead of just sun light. The heat made Syon sweat and he was forced to hilt tighter.
“Syon,” the other knights called to him. “Come fight beside us. The islander will use the dragon against Glavinore! We must stop him before the dragon leaves these ruins.”
“Thurrin Ysig is leaving these ruins on the back of the dragon and I am leaving with them,” Syon declared.
“What trick is this?” the knight who had spoken before asked. “Did Regus Arram plan this?”
“Regus trusts me, Jackob. You’ll have to trust me too. Let us pass.”
The knights moved out of his way.
~**~
Fergus had done his best to distract both Hexel and Melody. His new goal was to find his son… Sirle’s victory would not be complete without Ian at his side! He had heard reports of his son’s where-abouts and had sent his best men to find the boy and bring him back. Fergus had never had much of a father leaning but he knew that there were times when a son should be with his father.
He might not need Ian but the prince needed him.
“Kalin,” Fergus called his captain. “Find my son and bring him to me.”
“Our sources say that your son is with Queen Orphelia’s people in the waterspirit realm.”
“Well, have your sources look at how to get my son away from the waterspirits!” Fergus barked out the command.
“Sire, there are two ways to get the prince out. We can either trick the prince into leaving the waterspirit realm or we can trick the waterspirits into letting us in.”
“I don’t care how you do it, Captain Kalin! I just want it done! My victory will not be complete without my son at my side.”
“My best men say that the waterspirits have left their underwater realm. The prince is with them. The whole group is headed west,” Kalin clarified.
“Toward the ruins?” Fergus hid the quaking in his voice by snapping each word.
“Towards Glavinore’s army. Regus Arram’s knights will capture him before they get anywhere near the ruins.”
“The queen of Glavinore is loyal to me but I cannot trust the king too far.”
“Would be hold your son?”
A commotion sounded from the north. “I don’t think we’ll need to worry about Regus.”
Knights with the crane of Sirle pulled a struggling figure into the room.
“Get your hands off me!” Ian screamed pulled his arms out of the knight’s grasp.
“Knights from Glavinore were escorting him to the border, my king,” a knight with a blue ribbon around his arm told Fergus.
“I’ll have to talk to Regus Arram but first a word with my son.” Ian snapped his eyes shut and tried to block out the voice along with the colors but the knights around him would not let him escape either. One man held him to the floor while the other held his head. “Do not make me apply more direct persuasions, son.”
Ian knew that his father meant what he said. He slowly opened his eyes and saw the blackness of his father’s missing eye. He tried to look away but the hands on his head stopped him. He felt the wind blow in his head and force the echos of thoughts from his mind.
“What did you think you were doing, son?”
“I was getting help.” Ian was not able to stop himself from answering.
“My resources say that you already have help from the waterspirits,” Fergus growled.
“The waterspirits have agendas of their own. I did not want to rely on them but I needed to break the curse you put on Melody.”
“The girl’s curse is not fatal. She will be fine,” Fergus promised. “I knew that your girl would smoke you out.”
“Leave her our of this!”
“You’ll understand when you’re a father… You’ll understand when you see our army rise victorious!”
The time had come at last! The promise of ages had been fulfilled.
Fergus’s army marched unopposed! He looked at his son, hoping to see joy and pride in his father’s victory. What he found was exactly the opposite. The spell that had held Ian pound broke in that instant. No spell is stronger than emotion or hate or love.
“No! No! You came to conquer. You came to destroy. You and my father think you can take whatever worlds you want. How could you possibly think I would welcome you here? That I would be grateful to you for coming back after all these years to take away the world I know?”
Fergus heard the torment and passion in his son’s voice. He saw the anguish on his son’s face! But he could not stop! Victory must be won!
Ian, evidently, did not see the battle the same way as his father. The prince tried to run but the knights of Sirle formed around him, making an unwavering wall between Ian and freedom. Ian did not give up even with the unmovable stones stacked around him. He fought to brake through the wall but Fergus would not let him get too close.
“Call for Glavinore’s queen! I want her here immediately!” the king roared. “I need her magic!”
Captain Kalin ran to make sure that his king’s orders were obeyed and the wall around Ian felt the captain’s absence. The wall began to give and Ian pushed harder. He saw a crack begin to form and pushed all the more but Fergus noticed the crack at the same time. He waved his hands and made glass-like ice form along the crack and inside it. Ian could not hope to escape through that.
“You can’t counter each move I make!” Ian said more to himself than to the king or the knights.
“Nothing you do is original, son. Nothing is new on this world. Only one thing in our lives is truly our’s… style.”
“You say so many pretty words but you’re just trying to hide how weak your magic has gotten. You never needed someone else to help you hold me back. Your eye is weaker than it used to be.”
“My power does not come from my eye but from the lack of it. Power comes from suffering!”
“Your power comes from where your heart once was! It has nothing to do with your eye.” The words were like a realization to Ian. He had thought that the darkness where his father’s eye had been was the source of all of Fergus’s power but the truth was more simple. His heart was where his power lie and the heart was in the ruins. “I’m surprised that you let Regus Arram get so close to it. The two of you never quite saw eye to eye.”
“Regus knows his place and it’s time that you learned your’s.”
“My place is beside the people of Sirle and the waterspirits of the realm. They are my people and you have done everything in your power to destroy them! You took the gold from their hands and the food from their mouths. You took the pearl in every oyster and if they tried to eat rocks you would take those too. You’ve waged war on innocent people and its time that someone stopped you.”
Fergus fought to fold his temper in check but the king did not get far… and neither did the prince. The Queen of Glavinore had arrived.
~**~
And then the fire came at him, the crude sorcery of the king’s, which would never have touched Ian except that the queen’s voice, so unexpectedly powerful in its anguish, held him stunned a moment too long. The wall of glass exploded around him. Every broken shard seemed to call his name as it fell, a rain of glass and bodies. Stunned again, moving far too slowly, he felt the impetus of fire sweep him through the shattered casements.
Fire-blown over an airy expanse of nothing, he heard his name again, a distant and astonishing voice out of the past, it seemed, and calling someone he no longer knew. Then he began to feel the fire. He changed shape and dropped away from it, translucent as air, mirroring sky. He angled toward the water and fell with it a long, long way before he changed shape again. He crept on four legs behind the thundering water, and hid within the hollow of stone behind the falls until the moon rose. Then the king and the guards searching for the broken pieces of the witch’s spell decided that it must have been a powerless thing of twigs and earth, and wended their way back up the cliff.
The waterspirit army appeared then, moving and out of the waves and sea foam one minute and murky midnight water the next. The army created strange formations and moved as one, like a school of fish or a flock of birds. No one from Sirle could count the number of waterspirits rising out the seas and rivers.
“Get them out of here!” Fergus screamed to his men. “Don’t let those monsters get near the prince!”
Ian found himself surrounded by a wall once again but then a shadow in the sky sank to the earth like a rock and knocked down the wall around Ian.
It was a dragon!
“Get on my back, Prince Ian. I am called Roland and Thurrin Ysig sent me to help you.”
“Ian!” Fergus called, his voice truly panicked. “Stay away from that dragon.”
Ian pretended not to hear his father, as he ad often done as a child, and climbed on to the dragon’s back. He saw Melody and Thurrin Ysig already there.
Fergus sprinted towards his son but stopped when he saw the dragon’s eye on him. The eye of fire sent red-hot pain in the place where Fergus’s eye used to be. He through his hands over his face but did not move otherwise.
“Come here,” the dragon commanded.
Fergus balked; the beast pulled him when he did not move fast enough, hauling him in like a fish in a net. Ian, breathing something inaudible, moved to stand in front of Melody. But he left the sword in the kingís hand, for it was worth nothing, there on the dragonís back, except to help Fergus of Sirle think.
“Youíve brought this on yourself,” the dragon told him in a rolling voice. “Youíve driven your son to this. Look at your people. You made war on boys not old enough to grow beards ?”
“I didnít war on children!” Fergus snapped. “And I nearly died myself in that battle.”
“Youíve fought a war without weapons since then,” Ian said bitterly, “against even our children.”
“You started the war!”
“You drained everything but the breath out of the peasants of Sirle to punish us for it!”
“Iíll concede the air you breathe to you. But the ground you walk on is mine.”
“What of Ysig Island?” Thurrin asked.
“The Island is also mine. By heritage, by marriage ? ” The queen of Glavinore declared with a face growing red from anger.
“Even the magic in it? This dragon came out of the heart of Ysig. If we ever offend you, and you bring your knights to fight us, beware what you might face.”
Fergus of Sirle stared at them all: his son who appeared to be someone Fergus had never met. Thurrin Ysig on a dragon’s back and Melody of Umbria who had become part waterspirit. Thurrin looked as shocked as the king. He would have stared at himself if he had an extra eye, for the words had come out of nowhere, solid as stone piled on stone, making an unshakable argument for peace.
The king asked incredulously, “Are you threatening me?”
Thurrin thought about it and nodded. “I am. If you go to war with Ian and Umbria over this, then Ysig Island will go to war with you. And youíd better learn some more magic because your weapons will be useless there. The queen of Glavinore will not help you then.”
The king opened his mouth; for a moment nothing came out. The blood raged into his face and faded. “The king of Glavinore would never war against his wife’s allies ?you canít speak for Glavinore and Ysig alike ? ”
“Itís not the Glavinore you would face,” he said grimly. “Itís all the folk whose faces you have never seen. Like the folk in Sirle, they have names, and lives they think important. Unlike your heart, Ysig has not forgotten its magic.”
“You act like you’ve won something here but that is yet to be seen,” Fergus growled.
“Roland knows where your heart is. He saw it long ago.”
“Knowing and seeing are both far cries from having.”
Thurrin pulled the heart from his robes.
~**~
A dust of wind brought Craten to the battlefield. He was at home on the wind now, as he was familiar with his magic. He knew how to trust it and when he push and pull on different things. The art of flying had been mastered by Craten but he still had much to learn about magic. He felt lost in the knowledge of his allies and enemies alike but that dizzying, shaking feeling only made Craten work harder. The younger man knew that his brother and his island both were relying on him.
The bard of Sron and the witch of Glavinore both flew at him and test his skills both in flight and in the arcane magics.
“No one can hid up here forever, little bird,” Gwendolyn of Glavinore sang.
“This bird has strength, Gwen,” the bard warned, “but we have experience.”
Craten knew that her words were meant as a warning for him. He also knew that he needed to ignore them. If he lost concentration on his own magic than his mind could be open to powers of any witch or hedge wizard His mind would be open to the bard if he gave an inch or an ounce. Craten thought of all the people relying on him and held onto his concentration with everything in him. His knuckles shown white in his clinched fists.
Physical body parts have no effect on mental magic but Crate needed the nails biting into his flesh to remind himself where he was and what would happen if he failed. The witches would come at him. Their attacks would be stronger than even the winds that blow through the Island during hurricane season, and it would not matter how his fists were clinched or who he remembered. The thing Craten needed to hold onto was becoming less and less clear with each attack!
Craten felt a piece of his consciousness fall away with each spell. Magic takes a toll but the mental strain of the multiple attacks made victory almost impossible! The fight started outnumbered but it was quickly turning into a massicure.
Still, Craten could not let the bard think that he would go down without a fight. “Thurrin has the heart. You’re too late. He will defeat Fergus of Sirle and free the people of Ysig once and for all.”
“Your faith in your brother is touching but misplaced,” the bard chided. “Magic cannot be beaten with a sword.”
“Thurrin knows a spell or two. Our father –”
“Your father is a mongering fool without one memory! He could no more help your brother become a warrior-mage than slay a dragon. Your father is an old man past his prime. He is a burden, nothing more.”
Craten felt the heat of anger stir within him like a volcano. “My father will never be a burden!”
“You are a kind-hearted soul but you know nothing of magic and little of the world,” the bard taunted.
“Your judgment has always been scewd,” Queen Gwen declared. “You rode out to battle thinking that you could help your family and your people but you only lost your leg. You never helped anyone.”
The words spun around Craten like a cyclone… or maybe the words were as still as the sun but he was spinning like a cyclone. Either way, Craten’s world was spinning and the truth was not giving him the freedom he sought.
“I acted like a fool and a braggart on that day but all that happened in the past. No one can change the past but I can work to make the future a better place. My father and I both made mistakes during the battle with Glavinore. We paid for those mistakes, me with my leg and my father with him mind. The future is the only place we can look to now. Redemption cannot be found in the past but we have a chance of finding it in the future.”
“You speak like a politician. That may be something that your father can still teach you.” A smile curved Craten’s lips even at the witch’s hard words.
The smile stayed as he said, “Let me show you what my father taught me.”
The world went still then and time seemed to stop. Craten could hear his heart pound in his head but the magic-users before him did not notice anything. They did not move a muscle.
Craten saw what they would do before they did it. He saw the witch’s ball of fire before it left her hand. He saw the bard’s lightning before thunder cracked in the sky. Craten prepared for each attack before it began but the magic began to take hit’s toll. Craten’s body felt leaden.
“Your magic does not come from your father, Craten. Give us the staff and we will teach you to dance on wind and fly through vales and over oceans. You could be the strongest sorcerer the world has ever known if you only let my sisters and I teach you truth.”
“You’ve never given truth to anyone without giving them deception first! You took my father’s pain and the truth you gave was only to cause more pain and more sadness.”
“I cannot take anything you don’t give me,” the bard tisked.
“You lie until you no longer have to steal!” The answer came to Craten then, “You’re here for the staff and the cup. All this trouble started when the star shone in the sky!”
“The red commit is not what you think it is! Ask your friends from the Phoenix Society. There is only one way to stop the evil it brings!”
“The two of you and your sisters seem a greater evil than any star, no matter how red.”
“Your brother could tell you a different story,” the bard sang, missing only her harp. “The dragon knows the truth and he must have told your brother! That dragon hasn’t kept his mouth shut sense taking Fergus’s eye!”
“I haven’t seen your dragon but it will take more than a flying reptile to convince me that a star is dangerous.”
“You were worried that my sisters wanted your staff because of the red star.”
“You keep talking about evil but it’s a star. It’s far away. There is nothing evil in a star. The evil comes from you! Stars are just stars!”
“Look up at the red star and tell me that it looks like any other.”
“The red star is certainly unique but it will not distract me. That is your goal isn’t it?”
“I would think of something more imaginative than that!”
“My sister does not lie!”
“Don’t waste your time talking!” Craten screamed. “Show me your imagination and fight me!”
“Your wish is my command!”
The witch dove at Craten. He swerved left but something hit him from the right and sent bells ringing through his head. He put his hand to his head. Craten needed a minute or two to steady himself but that time was not given. The bard came at Craten from one side and the witch came at him from the other. Craten ran forward, trying to avoid them both, but his injured leg began to cramp. He crumpled to the ground.
The witch and bard were on him in an instant!
Craten moved to his hands to fend them off but something broke inside him. He felt a vital piece give way in his soul. Craten knew that some part of himself changed and he could only watch as a light flew from his risen hands. Magic had come from him as suddenly as a northeastern breeze in the past but this time was different. This time the magic didn’t stop with one brilliant shot.
Craten felt the metallic taste of panic as he realized that he would never be able to control this magic. He tried to pull the magic towards him, hoping that it would dissipate.
“That is a different way,” the deep voice startled Craten. “I’ve never seen a wizard use their magic like that.”
“I’m not a wizard,” Craten said automatically.
“A young sorcerer then… I’m sorry about jumping to conclusions. I’ve never met an untrained sorcerer with magic like you. Most of them are trained my their sires. Sorcerers can control magic but you can’t control your’s. Do you need help?”
Craten wanted to shout yes but he felt cautious… “Who are you?”
The voice laughed. “You know me as the red commit but I was once Obliteron the Dragon. A wizard and a bard turned me into a star long ago.”
“Can I trust you?”
“Let me show you.” Obliteron did something to Craten’s magic then.
The light came from his hands and continued to shine until Craten could only see the two women. The scene around him disappeared and a strange room took its place.
“Where are we?” Craten’s breathless voice asked.
“You don’t know? You brought us here!”
“The dragon took control of the magic. I didn’t do it!”
The witch went pale and the bard’s eyes went wide. They spoke on top of each other. “What dragon? You’re talking crazy, boy!”
“You should know about the dragon!” Craten’s hand shook as he pointed to the bard. “You turned him into a commit!”
Men and women in the long robes of a scholar came into the room. “What is he talking about, Amaranthine?”
“Scholar Madden. It is nice to see you again. We are old friends and there is no reason to play dumb. You were with me when I turned the dragon into a star. You helped me do it. I could never do such complex magic on my own!”
“The dragon suffered because of me and I regret that. My life’s work is about redemption. I need to do all I can to make up for the wrongs I’ve done.”
“You think that nothing will save you?” Amaranthine taunted. “That doing nothing will help?”
“I acted too quickly with you and with that dragon. I will not make the same mistake again!” Madden’s eyes were wide as she spoke. Her hands were fists and could not stop shaking. The bard’s voice came at Madden like a snapping viper. She could not back down even though victory seemed unobtainable.
“Mistakes happen even when I am not here so why have you brought me back to the Phoenix Society?”
Madden shook her head. “I wish I could take credit for this but I can’t. I did not bring you here.”
Amaranthine could not hide her surprise. “How did we get here? You did not act to save the boy from Ysig Island?”
“Craten Ysig did not need my help. He had a star to help him. The dragon you trapped saved the boy simply to annoy you.”
“No,” Craten said in a whisper, “it’s more than that. The dragon sent me here to find you scholars and your society. The Phoenix Society helped the bard Amaranthine cast the spell and you can help me brake it! Once the bard’s spell on the dragon is broken than all her spells can break. The first will be the hardest but the rest will just fall in place. She cast a spell over all of Glavinore and have tricked the rest of the realms into following her. Fergus of Sirle is working with the bard and has declared war on the whole world. Your Society can stop him. It’s your job to save the world!”
“We will help you, Craten Ysig,” Scholar Madden promised, “but you must help us first. Use the star-burst cup to put Fergus of Sirle’s heart back in his chest and the Society will help you reverse Amaranthine’s spells.”
Craten nodded, agreeing to their deal without needing to think.
~**~
Ian twisted and turned in the knights’ hold but none of his efforts amounted to much. Kalin had trained his men well and he knew Ian even better. Kalin knew what Ian would do and he was prepared for it before Ian acted. Still, Ian thought he surprised Kalin when he asked, “I need to see my father.”
Kalin waved his hand at Ian, refusing to let him go farther. “The king is deep in sorcereries now. He cannot be interrupted.”
“He’ll want to hear this.”
“What makes you want to tell him. After all that I happened before I figured that you would let your father fall and die rather than reach to help him.”
“He is my father even if I don’t like him,” Ian said the words he knew he had to say but he tasted fear in the back of his throat. “I owe something to him.”
“I owe your father my life,” Kalin told the prince, “but that does not mean that I agree with everything he does.”
“You don’t agree with what he did to Melody?”
“I can see what will happen if your father continues as he’s going and I know what Sirle will become. Fergus of Sirle, the man who saved me, would have let me rot if I let that happen to Sirle. I want to help you.”
“How do you know what I’m planning to do? I could hurt Sirle worse than my father ever could…”
“Fergus is under a spell and you’re going to break it,” Kalin said plainly.
“I’m not that important,” Ian said as Craten Ysig appeared next to him.
“I have the star-burst cup,” Craten said with excitement. “I can break the bard’s spell!”
Craten raised his hands while Kalin smiled without warmth. Light came from his hands and exploded from his eyes. The light formed a tree of silver, blanches, trunk and roots. The roots moved into Fergus and pushed something made of metal and heat into him.
Something stirred deep within the one-eyed king. He had, Fergus realized suddenly, acquired a heart. It confused him; he had never had one before. Her courage moved him; so did her grave eyes, which, he suddenly saw, were the color of the hour he loved best, when the last haunting moments of day shifted toward the deepest purples of twilight. They changed now, as she gazed at him, darkened into that secret promise of night. He had touched her heart, he thought with wonder. So he felt, in that magic, timeless moment before he remembered whose face he wore.
“I will give you what you want.” Ian finally found his voice, only a husk of one; it could barely pass through the fire in his throat. He clung more tightly to his weapon, and held his father’s eyes; he saw the first touch of icy anger struggle with his patience. “I will leave you. I won’t trouble you any longer with my love. But I want to give you something first. With my love.”
“What?” He asked indifferently.
“Freedom. From me, from this house, from the Stone Forest. I will hold you fast until you stand free of us all. And then I will leave you.”
Fergus said Ian’s name again but the winds tore it from him. Kalin released Ian and was surprised to see that his wrist was no longer ivy, his body was human again. The prince’s hand closed around his own.
Winds screamed through the sudden dark. “Who gave you your eyes?”
Ian knew then. He had been looking at the answer all his life, at all its beauty, its seasons, its ever-changing faces of life and death.
“The Stone Forest.”
The ivy and rose turned to words then. “Melody,” he said, and I felt a rose bloom on my lips. They held each other through the winter dark, through all the dreams until they woke.
Ian lay awake a long time before he opened his eyes. He heard soft movements through the house, a word or two. He smelled bread baking, and a handful of dried flower petals simmering sweetly above the fire. Perhaps that had wakened them all: the scent of spring and new life.