(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)
The room smelled of food. He wanted to taste some, even though he hadn't the strength even to swallow. Light came from somewhere. Soft blankets. Safe.
"Coming around are you, sir?" Cork asked, his voice soft and friendly. "It would help if you spoke the local language. I would know what you want."
Katashan slowly opened his eyes, the eyelids feeling bruised and battered. He could hardly breathe. Cork sat in a chair beside the bed, leaning forward to look into his face. Cork had a bandage on his neck but he looked clean and rested.
"Sir?" Cork said, still looking into his face as though searching for some hint of life.
"Cor-k," he said, somehow making the name into two syllables.
"Yes sir. Can you sit up? Maylee brought some broth up from the kitchen. I think it would do you some good and better now before it gets cold."
"Broth," Katashan said, trying to sort the word out in his mind when Cork started to sit him up.
He protested with a hiss and a whispered curse in his own language. Darkness edged in around his already blurry sight, but by the time he could have protested, Cork had placed pillows behind his back and had an arm around his shoulder, steadying him. Katashan felt a wave of embarrassment that he hadn't even the strength to sit up on his own.
"Careful now, sir," Cork said, taking no notice of his mood or his curse. "Here. I'll hold the cup to your lips. Just sip a bit."
He still wanted to protest but he could tell Cork wouldn't listen anyway. He gave up the battle as soon as the warm liquid touched his lips. He tasted something that hinted of chicken and swallowed. And again.
Half a cup later he felt as though the world had begun to settle back into place. He looked at Cork and frowned. Bruises, he noted, had started to fade on his friend's face.
"How long -- back?" he asked, still fighting for the proper words in this language.
"Five days," Cork said.
Gods. That long? The idea startled and frightened him, but he didn't doubt it given the weakness of his body. He'd been well cared for, though. He could sense magic that had been used to help heal the worst of his wounds. Pater Matish again. He would have to thank the priest.
"Ah now, you look more yourself, sir," Cork said and sounded pleased as he sat aside the cup. "That's good. We've all been worried."
"Not as much as I would have expected," Cork admitted and sounded worried for that odd reason. He helped settle Katashan back on the pillows, and looked very relieved to be able to talk to him. He lowered his head and whispered, "There's been no tale about your own magic, sir."
"Is this good?"
"Yes, sir. Very much so." He glanced towards the door, and then to the open window, as if he feared someone might have scaled the side of the tower and hung outside. "There's been a wild outcry over magic hereabouts. So many soldiers killed, you know, and it could have been anyone in this fort if they had gone with his Lordship. Ona -- well, he wasn't well liked, but he was one of us. There's talk of even more trouble in the Atshila and that the king himself is concerned. You don't want the king looking your way sir, not at a time like this."
"I hadn't thought --" He stopped and closed his eyes. "I'll be very careful."
"I know you will, sir. You have been until now. And I am grateful, you know, that you saved my life."
"I brought this danger," Katashan said.
"You've said the like before. But I still don't see how this could be your fault."
"I took her from the place of sacrifice, set her spirit on this path --"
"And would it have been better, sir, if you'd left her?" he asked, sitting back again. "What would have happened then?"
"I . . . don't know," he admitted, but that was only half the answer and they both knew it. "It would have been nothing good. If this is the power of a broken spell, things would have been far worse if the work had been completed and the spell set in motion."
"And it wasn't? Why not? She's been long dead."
"Some spells take time to grow," Katashan replied. His head pounded, and he wished he didn't have to think about such grave matters right now. However, he could tell from Cork's worry that this had been weighing heavily on him, and likely the same was true for everyone else who knew the truth of Sherina's death. "This was no simple casting."
"How long would the rest have taken?" Cork asked and drank down the last of the broth himself.
"I don't really know, Cork. I will likely have to go back to the site to find out, though. Going there may give us the answers we need to destroy her."
"That would be good sir, though not yet. You're a long ways from well enough to travel."
He nodded without a protest. Even talking seemed to take a great deal of strength from him.
"Anything more I should know?"
"I sleep in the room here with you. Captain Serrano made it official that I will be your personal aide and servant. Maylee brings us food, and we're damned careful of everyone else. I've feared she would be back at the windows, but Pater Matish says we're safe. Gods help us; I didn't realize he could do magic, too. He said yesterday there's been no sign of her. I can't say that makes me feel any better."
"No, me either." If Katashan closed his eyes, he could see her clearly in his mind; a wavering shape of white and power, hovering like a malevolent cloud above the camp of the dead soldiers. Peralin had fought her away when his own magic had not been strong enough to stop her. Though, granted, he had not been in the best of shape at the time. She had not been close to destroyed, and yet she hadn't taken advantage of his weakness. That made him uneasy.
"Perhaps Peralin has been some help."
Cork's face paled a little. His voice lowered again. "I had convinced myself that had been -- madness, sir. That surely the god himself hadn't given me wine and hadn't come to our aid. I'd really rather he hadn't, sir. Things can't look good if he's involved."
"But he is."
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"Me too, sir. But there's nothing we can do about it." He shook his head, but apparently the reality would not be persuaded to leave him this time. "I've not mentioned his appearance to anyone. The others are worried enough."
Katashan nodded though it hurt to move his head. He did finally lift his hand and saw bandages wrapped around the wrist and up over the hand.
"Seemed best, sir, not to draw attention to that cut on your wrist. The wound had started to heal, but looked too obvious to me. I did that one myself, and let the Pater Matish deal with all the rest."
"Thank you. My ritual blade?"
Cork pulled the chain out from under his own tunic. "I'll keep it a while longer, until the priest is finished and doesn't plan to come back, if you don't mind, sir."
"Kat, sir," Cork said, and then laughed. He looked unexpectedly happy. "I'm glad you're awake now. I've had a world of worry, not knowing what to do next or what to do if she came back. Do you have any plans on how to deal with this?"
"I'd like to be awake for a little more time before I'm asked how to save the world."
Cork laughed again. Color had returned to his face. "Yes, sir. Good point. Rest now, Kat. Rest while you can."
By the next morning Katashan had already begun walking, though a slow, painful stumble seemed a more appropriate description. He moved twice from one side of the room to the other. His legs didn't want to hold him, but he knew better than to take more time at ease.
Besides, he had spent far too much of the long night awake, staring at the window, and wondering where Sherina had gone and why she hadn't attacked him at his weakest. He hoped he was right and Peralin kept her at bay and could continue to do so for a while longer. Anything else meant something more going on that he didn't understand, and he understood too damn little as it was.
Cork brought him clean clothing, though not from his own supplies. He looked at them with a slight frown.
"From Captain Serrano, sir, with his compliments," Cork said, carefully laying the pants and tunic out. He finally turned back to where Katashan sat, wrapped in a huge warm robe, huddled by the fireside. Warmth did not come easy to him. "You've lost weight. I think these will fit better."
"And make me look more like a local?" Katashan said.
"Maybe, but I doubt it."
Katashan started to complain that he wanted his own things and then realized how petty that would sound. The clothing looked warm, comfortable and likely would fit better. He even let Cork help him dress since his hands still seemed uncooperative. The fingers at least moved now, though.
"That's better, sir. And just as well that you're up and moving, since his Lordship will be here this afternoon."
"Lordship?" Katashan asked, startled.
"The late Lord Arpan's son and heir, sir," Cork quickly explained.
"Oh. I thought, for a moment --"
"No sir. He's dead. They held the funeral two days ago in the capital, for him and all of the troops who died with him. There has been all kinds of trouble brewing in Atshila over it, too, from what we've heard this morning. Not a place for either of us to visit any time soon, sir. Some of the Salbay city council suggested that at least I go, being one of only two who survived -- but Serrano talked them out of it, pointing out that I was too good a soldier to send on a suicide journey of that type. He seems to think the good people of the capital would be apt to kill either of us on sight."
"Excellent point," Katashan said, a little breathless just from the work of pulling on the tunic.
He limped to the chair by the window and looked out at the sea. A ship leaving with the tide skipped across the water, sail unfurled and oars adding their power with beats he could almost hear from here. He watched it make good time out past the breakers. Cork came to watch as well, nodding as the crew shipped oars and the wind caught full hold of the sails.
"I keep thinking I should be sailing on the next tide," Katashan said, watching still
"Would you leave us behind to deal with this madness on our own, then?"
Katashan looked back at Cork with a start, and then shrugged. He felt a sharp pain through his shoulder and sighed, as much at it as at Cork's look. "You are right, of course. I wouldn't go, at least until I have done all that I can to end this trouble." He settled in the chair by the table, his hands on the surface. "I weary, Cork, of fighting wars that are not my own."
Cork looked at him for a moment. Then he grabbed a second chair and pulled it over by the table and sat there with his hands on his knees and looking Katashan fully in the face for a long, silent time.
"What is it?" Katashan finally asked, unsettled by the stare.
"That's what I've wondered, sir. You don't sound yourself at all, talking about leaving, about wars that aren't your own. I know this isn't your place, but you've never acted like . . . well, like you're a foreigner. Are you homesick?"
"No," he said, but it wasn't really the truth, and he thought Cork could see some of the truth in his face. "Well, I guess I am, but not for a place so much as a time before the war. I can't go back. I can't have it again, because it's gone, Cork. I came here looking for peace, since I couldn't have my own world back and staying where I had been only made the loss worse. And now I find myself fighting for others, and people are dying. I didn't want this again."
Cork nodded, though Katashan wasn't sure he understood since he still looked worried. He didn't like to see his normally jovial friend upset and decided he had better pull himself out of this foul mood. It didn't help either of them. He needed to find out what was going on if he intended to be of any real help.
"Tell me about the new lord. Are we likely to have the same problems from him?"
"Truth be told, I don't know for certain," Cork said with a sigh and didn't look happy about this conversation either. "There are some matters you should know, though."
"And they aren't good from the sounds of it."
"Not all, no. Fordel is -- was -- his Lordship's youngest of three children. Sherina was the middle child. She was always willful and strong-minded."
"Doesn't surprise me, having had a few encounters with her."
Cork started to speak, stopped, and nodded. "You're right, you know. She isn't much changed."
"And the other two children?"
"The older son was Bronsan. He was, I'm afraid, much like his father. But he died in the last year of the war with your people, killed in battle."
"Yes, I thought that was something you ought to know, sir. I've never met Fordel. I've heard he's something of scholar, and that may be a good sign, though the Gods know I've met more than a few scholars who weren't reasonable people. Some think he's just weak but I don't think a weak man would have lasted to be the only heir under his father's care."
"What of his politics?"
"His feeling towards magic?" Katashan asked.
"I suspect in that, sir, he will follow the same as almost everyone else in the area. They don't like it much at all."
"Then best to keep that part quiet. Not that I intended to say anything right out anyway."
"Good plan, sir."
"I'm making you nervous again, aren't I?"
Cork had been looking at his hands but now he lifted his head. The bruises on his face had nearly faded, but the skin still seemed pale, as though the man remained perpetually cold after Sherina's touch.
"It's not you that makes me nervous -- well, not just you at least. It's everything that's happened since you arrived with Sherina's body. Nothing's gone right since then but it's not your fault," he added hastily. Then he shook his head, looking to the window again for a moment. Maybe he thought about sailing away as well. "I don't like the unknown, sir. I'm a soldier. I like to know where I stand with the enemy. But this . . . there seems to be nothing here I can understand and face, not from the enemy all the way to the new lord. No answers. I don't like it."
"And it seems that all my life has been filled with questions and damn few answers," Katashan replied. He leaned back in the chair and let the tension ease from his aching shoulders. "I had come to Cyrenia to get away from the past and to find a place of calm. I haven't yet, but I do like it here, Cork."
"Do you? Given everything that's happened I can't say that makes me think you're really sane."
The words caught him by surprise and he tried not to laugh, though only because it would hurt. Cork got him a bit of wine from the bottle by the bed and smiled. He liked to see his companion back in good spirits, and the timing turned out to be perfect since Maylee arrived a moment later with news.
"The young lord is in the hall, sir," she said, bowing to Katashan. "Captain Serrano asks if you can come down. He said to tell you he thinks the meeting might go better in a less private area, if you are well enough."
"I'm well enough," Katashan said and stood. He caught at the chair. "Mostly. Can you tell the Captain that we'll be down soon?"
"Yes sir. I'll do that." She gave Cork one bright, though nervous, smile, and then hurried away.
Katashan watched her go and then slowly moved, testing his ability to walk even to the door. He barely made it that far and Cork helped him down the long, tedious path to the main hall. Cork moved slowly and all but carried him in the stairwells.
Even so, by the time they reached the last part of the walk, Cork finally just put an arm around his waist and took most of Katashan's weight since he had begun to limp worse. Katashan started to pull away, but Cork shook his head.
"Don't argue, sir. Save your strength for dealing with Lord Fordel. I want you at your best, sir -- or at least as good as you can manage today."
Katashan didn't argue. Servants paused, some asking softly if he needed anything. He saw worry in their eyes, and Katashan couldn't decide if they feared him for what had happened, or feared for him and what might happen when he and Cork went into that hall.
But he had no choice. He couldn't have escaped, even if he had the strength to run. And Cork had reminded him of his duty, odd though that seemed. He couldn't walk away from these people even if he somehow had the chance. It would have put a lie to everything he told himself he would have done to help others if he'd has the chance. Besides, he thought Verina wouldn't be happy with him.
He pulled away from his friend as they neared the archway, standing straighter and preparing to walk on his own. The room sounded much quieter than it had been when his Lordship -- when the last Lord -- had been to Salbay. As they stepped in, he found guards stood by the opening. They glared as the two entered, hands conspicuously on their weapons. Katashan reminded himself they had lost friends to Sherina and having him and Cork survive couldn't be any good news for them.
The guards were not, he noticed, placed near the table where Captain Serrano and another man sat. At least Fordel hadn't taken the chair where his father had sat in judgment. Katashan hoped that meant the Lord Fordel trusted the captain, or at least didn't feel the need to intimidate him. Katashan badly needed some good news as he limped across the room and even something as small as this helped his step steady.
The man sitting in the place of honor at the table looked younger, smaller, and less impressive than his father. That started to put Katashan at ease, but as he drew a few steps closer that feeling evaporated.
Magic. Lord Fordel radiated the power. Katashan, had been approaching with his head bowed, hoping he could get away with a show of meekness, but now he knew that wouldn't work. Katashan looked up. Yes, Lord Fordel knew the feel of magic as well. Hell! He had to think of a way to get Cork out of this mess --
"You must be Katashan," Fordel said, his voice uncommonly steady and deceptively quiet. "I had worried about meeting you. Now I am relieved."
Katashan paused, worry still playing at his nerves and not daring to hope the reaction was more than anything but a deception, a trap.
"Captain Serrano, I'm going to make a confession," he said softly, his head bowing a little.
"Lord Fordel?" Serrano said, worried and confused.
"I know magic. I know magic very well, in fact; far better than my late, and dare I say unlamented, sister would ever know. However, she was more ambitious than I am. She sought... allies."
"Answers," Katashan said, despite himself. He took four quick steps forward and caught at the nearest chair, feeling the charade that had gotten him this far into the room weakening. He didn't think he could stand for much longer. "Finally, answers."
"A few, though not enough, I fear," Lord Fordel said. "Please, sit down. You are Cork?"
"Yes, sir." Cork sounded uncertain, but steady as well.
"Sit with us. We have matters to discuss."
"Yes, sir," Cork said. He didn't look any happier.
Cork pulled a chair out and steadied Katashan as he moved into it, grateful to be off his feet again. Lord Fordel looked him over and the young lord's fingers moved a little, measuring power, no doubt. Katashan didn't do the same. He hadn't even that much power to waste right now.
Cork settled in the chair beside Katashan. Captain Serrano looked as though he still didn't quite understand what was going on.
Lord Fordel, oddly enough, appeared at ease with his companions. Katashan decided to plunge straight into the fray without any preamble. He still, somehow, felt they didn't have time to waste.
"You are not upset that I know some magic," Katashan said, though softly.
"No, I am not," Fordel replied, his voice just as quiet. Oh, they had secrets and more secrets here. "Not as long as I believe you and I are allies. And since you have been doing battle with Sherina, I must believe we fight on the same side. True?"
"As far as I know," Katashan said.
He looked startled for a moment and then nodded more somberly. "True. You can't really know what side I'm on, can you?"
"I can't be certain, and given my dealings with the rest of your family. . . ."
"Ah. Of course." Fordel looked contrite and spread his hands on the table, leaning forward as he spoke. His voice had dropped to a near whisper, but the words still seemed too loud in the cavernous room. "My mother dabbled in magic. She had northern blood in her. They still hold to magic there, but then you would know that, being from the north."
"True," Katashan said. "And she taught you and your sister?"
"She taught Sherina. But my sister proved unwilling to work in the ways my mother thought wise, safe, and helpful. So she stopped teaching her daughter. I had come of age by then, and she turned her attention to me. It was, I think, a bad mistake. Sherina never forgave her."
"Your mother is dead," Katashan said.
"Yes. And while everyone else thought it was an unfortunate accident, I could feel the magic involved. By then Sherina had found another teacher."
"Any idea whom that teacher might be?"
"The person must have turned on her in the end," Katashan said. He sat back, trying to ease aches in his shoulders again. "She ended up the sacrifice. What else should I know?"
"I will give you what aid I can, but I must be circumspect in that work." Fordel looked from Katashan to Cork and then to Serrano. "I trust the three of you with my life, because if word reached the king about my ability, it would be more than my lands I would lose. As it is, this is going to be a tricky passing of the title. My father had never formally named me, believing Sherina the far better choice."
"He wanted her, rather than you?" Katashan asked. "I had the impression they couldn't stand each other."
"They couldn't stand to work together, but they held very similar views. Though, I suppose, having never known her in life --"
"I have come to believe she's not much changed," Katashan offered.
Lord Fordel gave a quick nod. "That's been my impression, given the tales I've heard, and the things I've seen." He sat back, staring at Katashan in silence for a long moment. "I don't know what to make of you, but I do know that I need an ally in this battle. I don't have the power to control her."
"Neither do I. But more than that, I don't know where to begin to control her." He considered his choices, and while working with someone from this family worried him, he knew he had no choice either. Fordel, at least, seemed reasonable, and if this were an act, he was better at it than his father or sister had ever been. "I need to understand the magic used in her death, and perhaps the magic she dealt in as well. I suspect they were interlocked."
"I have no idea who had taken over teaching her," Lord Fordel said, sounding truly frustrated. His fingers began to tap on the table, and his dark eyes -- too much like his father's -- narrowed in anger. "I have tried to find out, believe me. When she disappeared, I feared I would have to deal with her if she came back, and I wanted all the answers I could find. I found none at all."
"Damn," Katashan said. "Your pardon, your lordship."
Lord Fordel smiled, though it looked nervous and uncertain. "I'm not used this position of power. I was never the chosen one. It'll be some time before I worry about things like protocol. That seems like a terrible waste of our time, given all the other problems. Any ideas of what we can do?"
"I will trust that you know magic enough to have done a good search of your home to find what you could," Katashan answered. Fordel nodded. "That means we need to search elsewhere. I think you should want to go to see the place where your sister died."
"Ah. Is there something there to find?"
"Yes, but I could not, under the circumstances, do any real study when I first found her. I did find glyphs there, Lord Fordel. Life, Bond, Death."
He looked worried and by that Katashan judged he knew his magic very well. "Did they have power?"
"Yes. I destroyed them as best I could, but I wouldn't mind going back and completing the job, especially with spring coming. They are not something to leave for the unwary to trip over."
"True. And we might be able to divine more about her death by the study."
"When shall we go?" Serrano asked, finally seeming to understand there was hope in the presence of Lord Fordel.
"As soon as possible," Katashan replied and Lord Fordel nodded. "I don't think we dare wait until she returns again."
"You aren't in condition to travel, Katashan," Serrano protested
"I can be."
"Careful, careful sir," Cork dared speak and laid a hand on Katashan's arm. He looked more worried and nervous than he had when they first came in. "You must not be obvious, not with magic -- neither of you. Wait a day or two, sir. I know it's a chance, but there are other troubles to count as well. What good would it do to bring down the wrath and the distrust of the locals? Neither of you could gain any good from such action, and I think you have enemies enough."
"Very true," Captain Serrano said. He had finally seemed to regain his color and his nerve. "Can this wait a couple days? At least give you the semblance of healing? No one knows how badly injured you were, Katashan."
They were being wise, even though he hated to wait. He still felt as though time moved against them. However, noted that Lord Fordel waited on his word, and he finally nodded agreement to the delay. He wanted to rush off to the mountain but he suddenly felt very weary.
"Good," Cork said, sounding considerably relieved.
"I am grateful for your notice of the problem," Lord Fordel said. "It would be easy to lose sight of smaller tribulations in the larger battle, but we will have to come back and face them sometime."
"Exactly," Serrano said. "And speaking of problems, I suspect those coming for tonight's feast will be arriving soon. We must be a bit more proper at least for the Salbay Council."
"Gods, yes," Lord Fordel said. He sat back, frowning. "I'll meet with you again later, Katashan. Or better, yet, tomorrow. Rest tonight. We've things to do and you are essential to the work."
Katashan bowed his head in a quick nod of thanks as he prepared to leave. He didn't want to deal with the local government. With Cork's help, he stood to go back to his room, though he didn't look forward to the long journey through the maze of halls and stairwells.
Cork hovered nearby as he turned to go, ready to help as best he could. Katashan knew himself lucky to have found such friends. He hoped he didn't let them down, though he'd begun to fear his own tampering with Sherina's sacrifice had already created problems which would be hard to fix.
But he'd had no choice.
Cork touched his elbow. He must have been standing there, half insensible and lost in thought. He bowed his apology to the two at the table who looked at him with obvious worry and let Cork lead him away toward the archway again.
Before they had moved more than three steps away from the table, a group of five men in long gray robes entered the room. Katashan didn't need Cork's little hiss of warning to know they were important. He bowed his head and hoped he could easily slip away while Lord Fordel made his greetings.
He saw narrowed eyes turn his way with looks of mistrust. They stepped aside as though they feared to have him too near. Katashan tried not to feel overwhelmed by their presence or to feel as though they were more enemies.
"Your Lordship," one of the men said as they neared the table. "We of the Salbay Council have come to pledge our allegiance to you as the heir to your father's holdings and to pledge our help in whatever way we may be of assistance."
After he had spoken those words, the councilor gave what Katashan felt was a rather ominous glance in his direction. Cork must have seen something in the look as well, because he put a hand on Katashan's arm. He wanted to warn the guard back, but he knew by now that Cork would do what he felt was right, and not worry about the consequences.
"I am grateful for your loyalty and your offer," Lord Fordel said with a very regal bow of his head. He did know the show. "You are dismissed, Katashan and Cork. We will discuss the matter again, at my convenience."
"Yes, Your Lordship," Katashan said and attempted a proper bow. Cork caught him in time before he landed face-first at the feet of the councilors. The show might have been dramatic enough, but really wouldn't have helped.
Cork kept a hand on his arm and steered him past the others, around a few servants bringing trays of food and drink, past Lord Fordel's guards, and finally out past the archway and to the stairs.
He felt almost dizzy with the speed that Cork made in their retreat and he finally grabbed at a banister. He feared he would pass out.
"Stop, stop please." He leaned back against the wall. "There's no reason to run, Cork."
"Sorry, sir." He stopped and leaned against the wall opposite him, where he could still watch the archway. Katashan could still see worry in his look. "Sir --"
"Yes, we can go. But move slowly, Cork. I want to get to my room and rest, but I want to be conscious enough to enjoy it."
That won a quick smile from the man. "Well, I shouldn't be in such a rush, I suppose. Here, let me help you up the stairs, sir. We'll get to the room and the servants will bring us a nice meal."
"That sounds wonderful," Katashan agreed as Cork carefully took his arm again.
"I'm just glad we weren't expected to stay and join the feast," Cork said as they slowly started up the steps. "I think there are going to be too many strained nerves tonight, sir. No one expected Lord Fordel to take the lands. I suspect a few who may have been . . . less than polite to him in the past."
"Very unwise on their part. One never knows when a younger child will become an only child."
"Were you one of those people, Cork?"
"No, not me, sir. Did my best to avoid them all, in fact."
"For all the good it did me." He stopped at the top of the first landing, allowing Katashan a moment's rest. He could still hear the faint echo of voices in the hall below. "I seem to be under a great deal of their attention lately."
"Ah. And my vow to leave magic behind seems to have fallen by the wayside as well." Katashan gave a slight shrug, feeling the pull in his shoulder -- it didn't seem too bad, at least. "The world rarely gives us what we wish. We're lucky if we are given what we need."
"And sometimes we might be given the chance to help others with their needs," Cork added.
Katashan looked back at Cork and nodded agreement. He could have been more akin to Sherina. It would have been very easy to go that way after everything that had happened to him.
They reached the sanctuary of his room in good time. Realizing how he had tired he was just from that little sojourn proved he couldn't have gone off to the mountains, even if he could heal the worst of the injuries. The healing would take energy all its own.
Maylee brought them dinner. The food smelled heavenly.
"Thank you!" Katashan said as he settled at the chair. He saw the smile she gave Cork. Praise the Gods their relationship had survived the madness. "Can you join us?"
"Join you, sir?" she said, softly, her gray eyes gone wide.
"I don't mind and I'm certain Cork wouldn't." He waved a hand to stop whatever Cork had started to say. "I'm sure having to spend so much time with me hasn't been pleasant for either of you. So sit down, if you're free, and chat for a while."
"Oh." She looked at Cork and who gave her his chair, and settled on the bed by the far corner of the table. He looked in much better mood for her company. Katashan decided to try and convince Cork to go for a stroll with her later.
"What have you heard, Maylee?" Cork asked as he passed her bread and cheese. "Are they talking about us?"
"Oh, yes," she said, nodding emphatically, her hair bouncing at the top of her head. "There's much relief that you and the young lord seemed to get along so well, sir."
"Kat. Katashan. Not sir."
She frowned and glanced at Cork, as though to make certain it was all right. He gave a little shrug.
"Kat, then," she said. A bit bolder than Cork, he suspected. She nibbled the food and seemed to carefully consider what more to say. "There's talk that you brought the magic trouble here. I've heard that from the guards, and some of the servants. The people in the city, though . . . they don't seem to have any opinion at all, yet. Shock that his lordship is dead, but. . . ."
"I suspect they hope Lord Fordel will be less demanding," Katashan offered as he picked up a cup of cider. The scent made his mouth water and he sipped a little before he spoke again. "Lord Arpan couldn't have been very popular."
"That's true enough, sir," she said and smiled again. "Kat."
"I think he will be a better noble for this area, for whatever worth my opinion might be," Katashan said.
She looked at him, nodded as though she had measured his worth and his words as she nibbled at a little of the food. "I can't stay long. They'll expect me back in the kitchen. What should I tell them, sir?"
He hid his smile at the title again. "Tell them that His Lordship and I had a pleasant meeting, under the circumstances. And that I am very weary and will not be up and about much for the next couple days."
"Yes sir," she said, her eyes narrowed as she stood. He suspected he looked the part of an invalid too well, especially since his hand trembled as he lifted a piece of bread. "Rest well, sir. I'll be back later for the plates and tray."
She gave Cork a quick smile and left the room, and he could hear her skipping step out in the hall.
"Feel free to walk her down --"
"No sir," Cork said with a vehement shake of his head. "This is where I am supposed to be. As tempting as time with Maylee sounds, I'd rather not risk it."
"I'm not helpless."
"No, you aren't. But you are every bit as weary as you said. I am your guard. I take that position seriously."
"I'll know if Sherina tries to come in here."
"No doubt. Maybe it hasn't occurred to you that you could have other enemies, too." He played with a piece of bread for a moment, obviously choosing his words. "I am a native boy. Maybe I understand the area too well, and I know how some of the locals are going to think. You are a foreign stranger, and you and I are the only ones who survived what is obviously not natural deaths for the others. I'm a local boy and they know me so while I have a bit of the taint of that foul night, I'm not suspect. But you, sir . . . you brought in a body, you brought Lord Arpan down on us, and you were part of his death. You guard against the magic. I'll watch out for the men."
"Fair enough," Katashan said, knowing Cork was right. They made a good team. He thought they might both even survive it, if they remained very careful.
"Stop staring at the plate and finish your food. Sir."
He grinned and ate a little more.
Three days later they beegan the journey to Silver Pass. The morning felt cool and damp, the wind brisk off the ocean, and gulls screaming as they took off from the cliff side when the horses moved past
Katashan rode wrapped tight in a cloak, the wool damp but warm. For most of the first day he watched the ocean off to their right, where gray clouds scuttled across the sky and white waves crashed against the rocky shore below. He remembered standing at the summit of Silver Pass and thinking how warm it looked below. He wondered if he would ever be warm again.
The horses made a steady climb upward along the trail, following the cliff that overlooked the sea, far below. He hadn't had much of a chance to enjoy this trail on the way toward Salbay, when he had been watching over the body of Sherina and wondering what trouble he'd fallen into. He enjoyed it as much as possible this time, despite knowing he headed toward trouble again.
Lord Fordel rode ahead of him with five of his own men, keeping up appearances very well. They'd had a couple late night meetings in Katashan's room to discuss matters, but they knew they could do nothing until they learned more at the site. Sherina had not returned, but neither was convinced that meant she had been destroyed.
Katashan traveled with Cork at his side. Lord Fordel's, men seemed to take guarding their new Lord far more seriously than Katashan thought necessary from two men, one of whom needed help up on the horse after each stop. But then again, there was the matter of Lord Arpan's death which the two of them alone survived. He thought maybe they were being wise, after all.
He and Fordel hadn't spoken since they left the fort, which proved annoying. His men kept him close, bundling him off every time it seemed Katashan or Cork got too close. Katashan wondered how they could work together if these men were so bothered just by his presence on this trip.
There were other problems as well, and one in particular that worried Katashan. Fordel had told him last night that a company of Lord Arpan's men still hadn't turned up. Mercenaries, some of them, and well paid. Fordel had no intention of keeping them on, but he couldn't dismiss them if they didn't show themselves. Both he and Cork feared the men might think they had reason to attack the two who survived when they're benefactor didn't.
As the morning drew on, he let go of the annoyance and worries and watched the ocean, letting the waves soothe him. He thought there should be an escape across the sea, traveling off to lands he could not see. Would it be better?
He looked up with a start to find Fordel had pulled back to ride beside him. He glanced around and found the guards had spread out this time.
"It's all right. We're no longer being watched and my men will let us know if anyone tries to come close again."
"Oh," Katashan said. He felt dull-witted. "I hadn't thought of someone watching us. I had started to despair of the work we needed to do if your men didn't trust me."
"They don't trust you," Fordel said with an unexpectedly bright grin. "But they are my men, not my father's, and they understand about the work we must do. They're coached in magic as well."
"Cork is not," Katashan said, glancing around at the men, realizing how careless he had been not to notice.
"I know. I really think we have far more than enough people working magic already, don't you?"
"Ah. Yes." He pulled himself up straighter in the saddle. "Who was watching us?"
"Mountain people, mostly." He glanced over his shoulder towards the rocky headlands. "They keep eyes on the trail, making certain we're not mounting an attack against the villages. But there were others. Bullis has a feel for that sort of thing. He thinks there might have been a spy from the capital who probably followed us out of Salbay."
"And gave up?" Katashan asked with new worry.
"Not exactly gave up. Just became discouraged and fell back." He shrugged. "A little subtle magic that might not have worked if he hadn't run into the mountain people. They'll entertain each other for a while. Probably for a couple days, in fact. The mountain people are often very curious about people sneaking around and spying on others."
"Will they kill him?"
"It doesn't seem likely. And under the circumstances, we can't complain if they do. If they don't stop him, we must. This business is far too important to risk because of one spy. I dare not let my own abilities be known, Katashan. And I trust you don't wish to be any more open than I am."
"Quite true. My apologies, Lord Fordel. I know this business is serious, and people have died already. I just keep hoping for better answers than to get others killed."
"And this is why you and I are allies, Katashan. You are not careless of lives, the way my father and Sherina had always been. Let us hope we find those answers at the place where Sherina died," he said and sounded worried again. "I think it little more than luck that she hasn't struck again."
"Luck," Katashan said and looked over at Cork. He gave a slight nod, not lost on Fordel. "More than luck. We've had some help."
"Pater Matish, yes --"
"Oh yes, him too," Katashan said, and had Fordel's attention. The man looked both curious and worried. "But there is a reason why Cork and I survived the encounter with Sherina."
"I thought you --"
"I couldn't even stand, let alone cast enough magic to save us. No, it was not me, not entirely," he said. He looked into Fordel's face. "Peralin came to our aid, as he had the first night after I took Sherina from the pass."
"Per --" Fordel said, frowning first and then looking startled. "Peralin. The God."
"Surely you are mistaken," he said, his voice raising enough to draw attention from his men. He waved their worry away while he took several deep breaths. "You must be --"
"He rides on Night himself, my lord," Cork said. "And I've seen him as well. And drank of his wine."
"Gods, gods -- I don't like this at all. Peralin has a reputation for being involved in matters that are . . . well, dire. And he's not always won his wars."
"I suspected as much," Katashan said. He brushed long hair from his face, his hand not quite as steady as he would have liked. "But he's been of aid so far. I thought you should know, though I hadn't wanted to worry others. Are we stopping at the caravansary tonight?"
"Yes." Fordel shook his head, as though trying to dismiss what he'd been told. "We'll leave early tomorrow since it's a long climb to the pass and likely camp in the open part way to the summit tomorrow night, and then go the rest of the way at first light. Does that sound reasonable?"
"Oh yes. I wouldn't want to be up there in the dark, and especially not with the work we need to do. But camping in the open is going to be dangerous, you know."
"Everything is dangerous." He tilted his head, looking at Katashan as though he hadn't really done so before. "May I ask why you haven't riden on, dismissed our troubles from your mind, and left this place that isn't your home?"
"Even supposing Sherina isn't tied to me in some way -- which I fear she is -- and would follow wherever I went, I wouldn't leave without this matter settled. We both know there are wars that go beyond nationality. This is a war between the living and the dead and by that I choose my side."
"Ah. Yes." He looked a little startled at first, and then smiled. "You've seen the bigger picture. I am a noble in this place. I probably think too much in terms of territory, even now. You look worn already, Katashan. We're not far from the caravansary."
"Good. I'm tired. A good night's rest will help."
Lord Fordel nodded but he still looked worried. Katashan felt sorry for the man, who had stepped into this mess at a time when he also had to take over the reins of leadership as well. They both knew the trouble would get worse.
The ride went without incident, and they reached the resting stop well before sunset. However, much to Katashan's dismay, they found it already occupied by what appeared to be an entire clan of people. Even Fordel pulled back as they neared and shook his head with some dismay.
"Damn. They're early this year," he said.
"They?" Katashan asked, wishing only that he could get off the damned horse and rest.
"The spring field workers, sir. Mountain people who come down for the growing season," Cork explained with a shake of his head. "Starlings, we call them. They arrive in the spring and leave in the fall, going back to the mountains. They work the lowland fields, mostly in his Lordship's lands."
Cork glanced at Fordel, probably remembering that the young man was His Lordship now.
"This does indicate we'll have a long planting season, so that's not all bad," Fordel said, obviously trying to find some good in the situation. "They've never been wrong about the weather. But hell, I'm not ready to meet them as the new lord, and especially not during this journey."
"I suggest we ride on and camp on open ground tonight," one of his guards said.
"No," Katashan replied with a quick shake of his head. "We don't want to be out in the open tonight. I don't care to spend another night like I did with your father, Fordel."
"And you think we'll be safer inside?" the guard asked.
"I can ward buildings. I cannot ward the air itself."
"Ah. Good point," Fordel said. "And we'll have to rig something up for tomorrow night. No use wasting that much power tonight, though. We'll need it later."
The others nodded, none of them looking happy, but then there would be little on this trip to inspire a man to smile.
"Then we join the starlings." Fordel started his horse forward and stopped again, barely a yard closer. He looked back at the others again. "Though perhaps there's no reason they need know who I am? I fear it will only slow the journey if I am held here by duty."
"And that's a good point as well," Katashan conceded. He looked around at the little group. "Will the rest of you have any trouble with a charade to hide Lord Fordel?"
"No sir," Cork said and the others nodded. "But, if I can suggest. . . ?"
"By all means, Cork," Lord Fordel said, looking relieved to have anyone offer a suggestion.
"Take off the jewels. They're noticeable. And we'll go in as Katashan's guards, so they'll look at him rather than the rest of us, including you. He's exotic enough to draw most of the attention anyway."
Cork had a good point, though Katashan didn't like the idea of having the attention, though he would have had it anyway. They might as well make use of it. Lord Fordel nodded and carefully pulled off rings and his jeweled cloak clasp. He looked trail worn and dusty enough that the fine weave of the clothing should go unnoticed as dusk sat in, as long as he didn't draw any attention to himself.
The people at the caravansary had noticed them by now and appeared worried that the group had stopped a ways off. Katashan didn't want them to wonder what kind of trouble approached. The starling men were already reaching for weapons and that didn't look like a good way to start the evening.
"Shall I deal with this, sir?" Cork asked with one glance at Fordel, but then his attention turned to Katashan. "I've had some contact with the mountain people before."
"Yes, please," Katashan said, hoping for rest soon.
As they arrived at the gate to the shelter, he quickly learned why the locals called these people starlings, and it wasn't just for their migratory predilections. They came pouring out of the building, most dressed in black with bits of silver and gold dangling everywhere. And they twittered. They seemed to fairly fly around Katashan and the others, the small ones coming too close to horses until Katashan's guards leapt down and shooed everyone away.
He could not imagine how they were going to get any rest in this cacophony of sound. He looked at Fordel who appeared equally dismayed. The young lord had gotten down and had hold of the halter to Katashan's horse, waving the children away again and keeping the mount somewhat in control. Katashan would have thought the starlings knew about horses, since he could see they had mounts of their own in the stables.
Then he remembered how his own children had never believed anything would hurt them. . . .
The thought felt like an old, dull knife digging into his heart. He fought pain of the loss back with anger, but that wouldn't help now, to glare at those happy children because they were not his children, and they were alive when his were dead. It was not their fault. His fault, yes, for having believed, childlike, that nothing would hurt the ones he loved.
"Damn," he whispered, and closed his eyes, though the ghosts stood clearer there in his mind.
"Sir?" Cork said, a hand resting gently on his leg. He looked into Cork's face, forcing himself to focus on his friend as he took a deep breath, trying to banish different ghosts than the one he came to fight. "Are you all right, sir?"
"There's a shed in the back of the stalls," he said softly, bowing his head and refusing to look at the children as their parents gathered them up. "Let's take it. I can't deal with this tonight."
Cork nodded, but he glanced at Fordel who gave a quick, silent nod of his own. Katashan tried not to feel guilty about assuming control, although they would probably have been pretty crowded in the main building, and getting Fordel to somewhere with less people might be better anyway. Katashan thought there must be twenty to thirty of the starlings inside from the racket they made.
Fordel's men took care of the horses, working with some of the mountain men to move their own stock out of one section while they took the other. The mountain men seemed amiable enough, at least, and that put Katashan at ease.
Cork quickly escorted him into the small, weather-beaten shelter and helped him settle against the wall by the hay. Fordel remained by the door, acting like a guard while Katashan leaned back, content to be out of the way.
"My apologies," he told Fordel who looked at him, obviously not understanding. "I don't think I could have handled being part of that group tonight."
"This works well for both of us," Fordel said. He wrapped his cloak around his arms, looking weary. One of the guards took the spot by the door, and Fordel came to sit on the floor. Katashan realized this could not have been a good few days for him either, with his father's unexpected and spectacular death, and the work that had to be done since then. They were probably both fools to go rushing off to the pass just now.
But he felt as though something needed done and quickly. He didn't usually rush into anything important with such haste, but it seemed that ever since he had found Sherina time pressed in on him.
"Katashan?" Fordel asked. "You look as though there's something we ought to be talking about."
"I just wondered why I feel as though we need to hurry. I wonder why I keep thinking we're running out of time, and that even a night's rest is taking a chance."
"You too?" He frowned and leaned against the wall. Katashan hadn't expected him to look so at ease in such an uncomfortable place. "I don't know why I insisted we head up here right now. It's bound to draw attention."
"Time," Katashan said. "There is something coming that we must beat --"
"Spring." Fordel sat up straighter, looking startled. "The spring equinox is only three days away."
"Gods." Katashan felt a stab of understanding that set his heart pounding again. "You're right. Spring is coming. The body would have been found as soon as the spring melt came, so whatever the magic was triggered to do, it would have to happen before then."
"But why wait so long?" Fordel asked.
"Because. . . ." Katashan began and stopped again. He closed his eyes for a moment, and there he saw the answer that made him shiver with the power and simplicity of it. "Life, bond, death. The coming of spring is part of the ritual. Winter is death, and spring is life. This goes far beyond the human realm, Fordel. I fear that whoever set this spell is attempting to bind nature as well."
"Oh hell," Fordel said, his face paling. In some ways the look of worry relieved Katashan. They would be working together and he appreciated that Fordel understood the depth of the problem and the dangers involved. "We should have brought Matish, at the very least. Or I could have called in the high priest from . . . no, that's not such a good idea, is it?"
"Not if you intend to remain quiet about your own abilities. And the fewer people who know about mine, the better it will be," he added. He pulled his own cloak up closer around him. "I think it wiser to have Matish where he is unless he is needed."
"Yes," Fordel said, nodding emphatically. "He'll be good back up if we don't do well."
Cork appeared at the doorway, looked the two of them over, and shook his head. "You make me worry, sirs, when you both look as though things have just taken a turn for the worse. I don't want think it."
"There may be complications," Fordel said softly.
Cork sighed, looked from one to the other, and didn't ask for explanations. He had already gone through complications enough, Katashan suspected, and likely saw no reason to worry too much about another one. That seemed wise for someone who couldn't help in the magical side of the work.
"Lord Fordel, sir," Cork said softly, and dropped down on his heels. He made sure he had a clear view of the doorway and anyone coming from that direction. A horse protested outside but the guards seemed to get it in hand. It sounded normal. "Your man Bullis says he and the other guards will camp between us and the building with the Starlings, just to keep an eye on things. They think that you should be safe here, sir, with Katashan and me as guards."
"Sounds best," he said, though he did look around with a little unease. "At least we have some hay to sleep on."
"Yes, sir," Cork said. "I'll bring the bedding in and help get things settled. The guards are seeing to food, sir. They said you wouldn't mind sharing what the Starlings offer?"
"Not at all. They're excellent cooks."
Cork nodded, looking relieved. Katashan felt sorry for his friend, thrust into this mess and relegated to guard and servant for two rather eccentric men. Katashan thought it must seem a very strange and frightening world to someone who hadn't the ability to even sense the coming of magic. Katashan found it frightening enough for someone with the power.
While Cork went about the work, Katashan rested against the wall, feeling worn from the little journey. He wanted rest, and even the idea of food didn't appeal to him tonight. He closed his eyes, despite that he thought he should speak with Fordel for a while longer to discuss magic and what they both knew and could guess about what would happen when they reached Silver Pass.
But he couldn't. He hadn't the strength.
He opened his eyes a slit and frowned. Cork knelt beside him, a bowl in one hand and a cup in the other. Fordel had already begun eating. The food smelled rich and his stomach growled before he could remind himself he didn't want the food or to do the work of eating.
"Thank you," he said and took the offering. Cork still remained there, watching him. "Is there a problem?"
"I'm wondering, sir, if maybe we shouldn't spend a couple days here."
"No," Katashan said, though he felt tempted to agree. "No, we don't dare. We have just realized that time is short."
"But you took the body away. You broke that spell, right?" Cork asked softly.
"I . . . disturbed the spell," he corrected. Cork frowned. "The sacrifice had already been made, and it's obvious, from the trouble we've had with Sherina, that there's still power. I want to get up there and see what more we might do to stop whatever had been planned."
"Do you think you can?" he said and looked to Fordel to include him in the question this time.
"I don't know," Lord Fordel said with a shrug. He sat aside his already empty bowl. "I've no experience with this sort of matter or anything connected with it."
"Except for your own link with Sherina," Katashan reminded him.
Fordel frowned but nodded. Katashan wished he hadn't mentioned that part, wondering how Fordel must feel knowing his sister had died, bound to evil, likely to be a problem. . . .
Fordel ate several bites of bread, chewing carefully, staring at the wall. Katashan didn't bother him, turning his attention to his own food instead. Cork sat down near the door, watching through the opening into the area beyond. They could hear the sounds of too many people, far too close. Children sounded shrill and some of them unhappy. Katashan tried not to listen, to worry about what might happen to them if --
"I don't want to stay here," he said suddenly, startling his two companions.
"If she comes it will put all of them in danger, Cork. No more protection than the soldiers had when she came to the camp. I can't stay here. I can't risk drawing her to these poor people. I should have considered that before --"
"Calm, calm," Fordel said, leaning over to put a hand on his shoulder before he could stand. He had intended to leave, to get away but he stopped now and looked at Lord Fordel, thinking the man couldn't understand. "You said we needed to be in a building tonight so you could ward. Can you ward this entire place against the danger? Or is this too large an area?"
"Can you ward at all?" Katashan asked, uncertain of his own abilities.
"Not well. You said you warded the first night here, when you came down from the mountain. Can you do it again?"
"Yes," he said, forcing the panic to subside. "I only fear that she's gained strength and I may not be powerful enough to keep her out. However, these people would be along the path she would likely take to find me anyway, especially if we stayed anywhere near. Yes, here is the best chance for protecting us and them. Cork, I need my Ritual Blade."
Cork had held on to the blade while they were still at the fort, saying he would be a better guard of it if trouble came to Katashan. He hadn't argued. Now Cork looked worried as he reached inside his own tunic. However, it was Fordel who sat forward, shocked. That movement stopped Cork from continuing.
"Ritual Blade?" he said, putting aside his empty plate and looking surprised. "You are a heartblood wizard? Gods, man -- I had no idea!"
"Oh," Katashan said, a little embarrassed, and then worried. "Is this going to cause problems? I know that my kind were banned from your lands a century ago, but --"
"Katashan, you suddenly give me more hope for survival," Fordel admitted. He did look better. "I don't know why they destroyed your sect, Katashan. Maybe they had cause -- but I am dealing with you and not the mages of a hundred years ago, and so far I find no reason to cling to the ancient fears of my ancestors, who never trusted any cult from the north. All the more so when I know that they would condemn me for my own magic as well."
Katashan felt a wave of relief overlay the dread of the moment before. "I should set the wards then."
"Yes, you should."
"But don't put too much into it, sir," Cork told him, standing and offering a hand to help him to his feet. "You're weak already, and we have a good long journey and hard work ahead."
"Excellent warning," Katashan said, and began to rethink his work. He had been ready to throw as much power into the wards as he could, but he really only needed enough of a ward to warn him. That would take little more than a touch of blood at the gate and the wall, and a little on the building where the Starlings rested, quieter now.
He had expected Lord Fordel to follow him out to see the work done, but remaining where he wouldn't be seen seemed wiser. Katashan took his time at the work, pausing for a long moment at the gate, listening in hopes of hearing Night coming to help them.
He felt inadequate to the work, even though there didn't seem to be anything particularly wrong tonight. Rest would help, and with that in mind, he headed back to the shed, Cork as always at his side.
Cork quickly made a bed for him in the straw,and brought more warm food, which he insisted that Katashan eat. He did as he was bade, too weary to argue the point.
Then he noticed Fordel sitting up against the wall across from him, and watching with what appeared to be a look of amusement. Cork looked where Katashan did and he expected the guard to be embarrassed. Instead, he shrugged and smiled.
"I've decided that if so much depends on Katashan, then I'd do well to make certain he's at his best," Cork said, and continued to make the bed while Katashan ate. Katashan did notice that he was making two spots, praise the Gods, so he hadn't left Fordel out completely. "He's gone through hell, your lordship, sir, and there's damn little time -- begging your pardon -- very little time in which he can recover."
"You need not apologize to me for the care you take of your ward, Cork," Fordel said. He shifted a little, and for the first time showed discomfort at their surroundings. "Nor for your language. I grew up around the troops and spent more time around them than any nobility expect my father, who's language was never gentile. Besides, you have a good point. And Katashan, forgive me, but you do look like hell."
"Yes, I imagine I do," Katashan said with a sigh. He knew how he felt and he didn't have to guess at how he looked.
"Rest." Fordel leaned back against the wall, pulling his own cloak around him. "We'll regret if we don't take advantage of this time."
Katashan didn't argue.
He rested, but not well.