Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Paid in Gold and Blood, Chapters 19 & 20

(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)

Chapter Nineteen

Katashan thought he awoke in a different place; a strange world, devoid of color and shape, sound and touch.  He could be anywhere.  He could be everywhere. 

His spirit was no longer a part of his body.  The thought startled more than frightened him, and if he hadn't remembered the others he left behind in such trouble, he might have stayed here, content to be . . . nothing.

"Goddess," he whispered, a sound without voice, words without a mouth.  "Goddess, help me."

Ripples came through a void of nothing, indicating notice.  He couldn't say he had really drawn Verina's attention, but he did have something's notice. 

"Goddess, please aid us in our time of need."

The world destroyed if you do not win.  What does it matter?

Her thoughts?

"It matters to us.  It matters to me, and I have done what I can in your name and your cause."

But he lied, and she knew it.  She showed it to him, the lie of his soul that had turned its back on duty when he walked away from his land.

"I am only a man.  I couldn't bear any more."

And should I care?

"Should I?" Despair came when he least wanted it.  She had torn open too many wounds, and he could not seal them before they bled out his anger and despair.  "Should I care what happens to these people?  Not mine.  Not my family.  Not my --"

And he saw frightened, weeping children dying in the streets of Salbay.  He saw the wondrous city crashing into the sea, cliffs giving way --


You care?

"Yes.  Goddess, yes I still care.  I slept for a while, that's all.  I slept to escape my personal loss.  I slept to come here and help these people.  Didn't you bring me here?  Isn't this your idea?  Tell me why! Tell me who controls my life, who destroyed all I love, who brought me here to this --"

You.  Your choices.

"No!" It could not be his fault, the death of his family or the years as a slave, bound by dark magic, unable to help the others.  Waiting, waiting for a chance to escape and a chance to save the others. How could he have saved the others and let his own family die?  How could he have made such a choice?  His fault -- she showed it to him.  His fault for saving others and not helping those whom he had loved instead.


"Goddess, please . . .  absolution. Sanctuary."

I cannot give you peace.  I cannot save you from your own darkness.  And only you can save the others.

"Tell me what I must do!"

Be who you are; do not hide from it.  Do not listen to the dark you bring with you in your soul.

He felt an answer in those words, a whisper of truth pushing into his soul, becoming a part of him, awakening something he had thought lost. . . .

"Katashan?" Cork whispered softly.  His head and shoulders lifted a little as someone gently moved him.  "Please drink a little of the ale.  Come on, now.  Fordel can't hold the ward much longer.  We need your help, sir."

Katashan forced his eyes open, but only a slit at first, afraid that he'd still find the void.  Katashan found himself on the cold ground, hard rock beneath his back, and the world not really changed around him.

Had he really spoken with the Goddess?  Or had the exchange only been some game of his mind, looking for answers even in the dark depths of unconsciousness?  Better to think that, he suspected, then to dwell on words that stung.


The shield still held.  He remembered wishing it to do so, and obviously he had wished strong enough to drain magic from himself to fuel the protection.  The others huddled close around him, and Fordel sat with a hand on the ice-cold shield, feeding power that drained him far too quickly.  Fordel already looked almost as pale white as the ice shield; he wouldn't hold up much longer.

Lightning struck the shield.  Katashan felt the tingle, a little fire seeping through with a promise of the destruction they faced.

Cork had hold of him and placed the flask to his lips and he looked up past Cork.  He hadn't thought to look up before, even though the lightning came from above. Something unnatural hung in the sky above them: a large dark stone, like a cloud of rock.  He could tell it had been imbued with magic and turned loose here, like a guardian to strike when someone with like magic came too near. 

He could deal with this.

"There," he said softly as he pointed upward.  "Must drop the shield to destroy it."

"Sir?" Cork said, worried at the words.

"Ah.  Yes.  Not drop.  Just -- I must go outside it."

"Not alone!" Cork grabbed tight on his arm.

"Alone."  He sat up, surprising Cork and the others.  In fact, it surprised him, but he felt power now that had not been there before.  Had the Goddess given help?  He hoped so, because they needed her help this time.

"Katashan," Fordel whispered, his face drenched in perspiration.  "I can't --"

"A moment longer, friend."

Fordel bowed his head and placed his other hand on the shield.  The surface fluctuated and moved, like the beating of the man's heart.

Katashan rose unsteadily to his feet -- and stepped outside their protection, a quick push through his own power and past Fordel's magic; a different feel, tingling where his had only been warmth. 

Lightning came straight for him.  He had known that it would with magic drawn to magic.  Right now he was a far more powerful magnet than the shield.  He could see the faces of friends, watching him in horror when he reached one hand into the sky for the lightning, and put the other again on the statue.  If this did not work, at least the end would be quick.

Lightning struck, but not true lighting.  Magic made, and he could control magic.  Even so, it felt like fire burnt through him, grounded through her statue, and then upward again. . . .

His power and his will flew on the lightning bolt and beyond the pain he could feel the power of the world in his hold: Nature, not tamed, but held for a moment, and bent to do his will, to destroy the stone above them.  He played lighting against the surface searching for weakness, imperfection . . . there.  A little flaw, but the lightning found the crack, traveled along the path into the heart of the stone and spread outward. . . .

"We need him to be conscious now, Cork," someone said.  Katashan heard the words and wished them away.  "We're running out of time."

"Yes, Your Lordship, sir.  I'll do what I can."

Katashan wanted the peace and the emptiness, a little longer.  It would not last.  He awoke again in the cold.  Cork worked at wrapping a cloak around him.

"The others --" he said, his voice harsh, but loud enough for Cork to hear.

"We're fine, sir," Cork said, though he didn't sound like he particularly meant it.  "Got hit by a bit of falling rock, but we have no more than a bruise or two.  That was -- spectacular, sir."

"Was it? What's happened?"

"The stone shattered about the same time Lord Fordel lost hold of the shield.  The storm died, but it got very cold, sir.  Can you sit up?  Lord Fordel would like a word or two, I think."

He remembered they had come here not to destroy the storm.  There was other trouble.  With half a moan, Kat forced himself to sit up. Fordel, who had been standing by the trail, hurried towards him.  Katashan had collapsed at the feet of the Verina statue, which still glowed with latent power.  Fordel looked towards the statue and away.  Plainly a man who didn't like to be involved in the matters of Gods. 

Wise man.

"Are you coherent enough to discuss what we should do next?" Fordel asked.

"I don't know," Katashan confessed, rubbing the back of his neck.  He had felt uncertain of what to do about the sacrifice on the climb up to this pass.  Now he had slipped beyond such simple thoughts to confusion about life itself.  This didn't help.

"I've looked over the runes." Fordel waved a hand towards an area to the left.  "You said you had destroyed them?"

"Part of them."

"They're whole again."

"Well.  Damn.  Let me see."

No one argued.  Cork helped Katashan to his feet and held him there, the cloak wrapped tight around him, though it did little against the bitter cold. The guards kept watch by the trail, as if they expected trouble to come from that direction.  With the storm gone -- some time had passed since he had destroyed the boulder, he thought from the placement of the sun -- the more curious and foolhardy might rush up here.  They could not allow Lord Fordel to be found at the scene of such recent magical havoc.  But the man couldn't leave until they did what they could about the runes and the spell.

Katashan felt as though every time he made a step forward, something worse moved into the path to stop him.  He wanted to suggest Fordel leave quickly, but that might not be wise, even if it were safe.  Katashan didn't feel nearly strong enough to deal with another magical attack and this seemed a time when one should, reasonably, expect one.

He also, of course, had no right to give orders to the local Lord.  While Fordel seemed amiable enough, the man still had been raised to hold power.  Probably because he had so lately been appointed to the position, Fordel still listened to others.

Or perhaps, Katashan thought, his own background had soured him towards those in power. The Goddess had touched on that problem , though perhaps it had been his own guilt -- his own mind telling him to stop turning away from everything connected with the power he now used.  He tried to push that thought away again as he limped behind Fordel, heading towards the spot where he had first found the body.

The body, he suddenly remembered, was Lord Fordel's late sister.  That kept getting lost in all the rest of this madness.  Fordel had not, obviously, been close to Sherina -- but he still must have felt some ties of blood and suffered some feelings of loss.  Double loss, with his father also gone.  And triple loss, since he had lost his mother in this insanity as well, even if it had been some time in the past.

He didn't want these thoughts now as the cold wind blew through the cloak and left him cold.  He thought he would never be warm again or ever find a place where he would feel safe.

Katashan had come here to get away from his own past, only to find himself caught up in lives as twisted and troubled as his own had been.  He looked towarda the sea, as he had the first day he stood here, right before all hell broke loose and he found Sherina chained, dead, and magically bound.  He could see only a fog on the shore today, and the sapphire sea lost behind the wall of gray.  He again wondered what world he could find, across that water.  He wondered how soon he could catch a ship, and go.

"Careful, sir," Cork said, taking hold of his arm when he started to slip on the newly formed ice and slick rock.

"I didn't come here for this," he said aloud, and regretted the words, though the others only nodded agreement.  Obviously, none of them sought for this trouble, but they still all stood around him, hoping for answers.  He needed to stop considering this as his own personal hell. The others had been drawn in with him and none of them any happier for it.

Fordel led him back to the runes where he found the full extent of the problem.  The runes were not only whole again; they glittered.  They moved.  He watched in fascination and growing horror as he carefully knelt beside the spot.

He had never faced anything of this sort.  He'd never even heard of such a thing.  He didn't say so to the others, who still held some little hope in his ability.  They didn't need any more discouragement.  Katashan automatically held up a hand to stop Cork when he came closer.  He did not want anyone unprotected to come near.

"What should we do?" Fordel asked softly.

"I don't know," Katashan admitted.  Fordel frowned.  "I'm sorry, but I have never worked with anything remotely like this.  The runes should not have reformed, not after what I had done.  It is possible someone came and repaired them, however.  That would be a relief, in some ways, even given the amount of magic I sense here.  If a person did not come back and fix this, then the runes did it themselves, and that idea frightens me, Lord Fordel."

"Yes," Fordel said, understanding the problem.  He looked at the runes and shook his head with worry again.  "Can we try to destroy them again?"

"Yes, we can try.  I don't give us much hope of succeeding.  When I was here, the runes were dormant, as though. . . ."

"As though resting through winter," Fordel finished for him.  He knelt closer as well, and studied the runes without reaching toward them.  Plainly, neither of them liked what they felt here.  "And spring has come.  We've already decided there is some link with the seasons, and that likely awakened them. I like this less and less, Katashan." 

Lord Fordel lifted a hand, testing out the feel of the magic, and it was all Katashan could do to force himself not stop him.  The man understood the dangers, and what he did would help them understand the problem better.  Katashan wanted to run away.  It wouldn't help.  Sherina would follow him, if nothing else.

"Suggestions?" Fordel asked.

"One which you will not like," Katashan said, and forced himself to continue despite the narrow-eyed look the statement won.  "You need to get away from here, Lord Fordel.  Quickly.  The storm has passed and the last thing you need is to have your people find you at such a site as this."

"They would only think I came up after the storm."

"No," Cork answered.  He looked a little worried at the glance Fordel gave him, but he kept talking.  "They'd have come from the fishing village down the trail opposite from the way we came -- but close.  They will know that to get here so soon, you had to have headed up before the storm ended and well before they started up."

Lord Fordel started to argue.  He stopped.  "A compromise.  My guards will stand posts where they can see anyone coming toward us.  If they spot someone, I will head into the trees.  I suggest the rest of you come with me."

"No, Your Lordship, sir. They'll see the camp heading up here.  We'll only say we got caught by the weather and came up after the storm."

"And why can't I do the same?"

"Because it would be wiser if they don't think of you as involved in this," Katashan said, taking over for the nervous Cork.  "Only the Starlings saw  us, and they didn't know who you are.  Don't chance it, Fordel.  Not with trouble like this."

He finally nodded, but didn't look happier for it.  "In the meantime, we had better try to find something that will help here.  Do you have any suggestions concerning what to do?"

Katashan turned his full attention back to the runes, not that they had been far from his thoughts anyway.  Light slipped and played along each sigil, dancing with power.  Life, Death, Bond and the circle of the seasons, all bound into one spell.  Life had been bound to death -- to winter.  As the seasons changed, both the runes and the spell had begun to change as well. 

Unfortunately, he still couldn't quite see how they intertwined.  Not knowing the dynamics of the spell made him uneasy at the idea of doing anything more than watch.  He had already upset something and released Sherina from part of the binding, which had set a malevolent spirit loose in the world and killed far too many others.  He didn't want to make another mistake.

He had forced himself not to think those deaths were his fault, but it came hard to him now since he was tired, worn, and unprepared as he was for this battle.

"Sir?" Cork said suddenly, a hand on his shoulder.

His head had lowered.  He must have looked defeated at that moment, before he even tried to make amends for his mistakes.

"Sir, do you need to rest?" Cork asked, his fingers tightening.

"I need not to make another mistake," Katashan said.  "I need not to get other people killed."

"Other people?" Fordel asked.

"Your father and his men -- if I had not let Sherina loose --"

"Do you think leaving her tied here, letting her fuel these runes, would have been better in the long run?  Your Goddess called you here to do something, Katashan."

He wanted to snap an answer but instead gave a civil nod and reached out to test the edges of the magic.  Dark, fiery, angry.  He could feel all those emotions which meant the control came from something human, conscious -- a person.

Nearby?   Or was that just the echoes still of Sherina in the spell.

He tested again trying to find some path that might led back to a real enemy.  Nothing went anywhere but back to the runes, however and he knew the runes were not intelligent. They could not radiate emotions.

Someone had made them. Someone had pushed the dagger into Sherina's heart.  Someone wanted to create a magic that would change the world.

Katashan peered closer at the swirling movement, trying to gauge the power employed and what it did.  Renewal?  Yes, that definitely. And protection.  He suspected, in fact, that the overlay of protection had been added since his first work here.  And that, again, meant someone taking an active local interest in this place.  And yet he couldn't find any link to a person --

He mumbled a curse in his own language and looked up at Fordel.

"You don't look happy," Fordel said.  He wisely took a step back from the runes.

"I've been feeling for a link to whoever has been looking over this site," he said.  He started to stand and accepted help from Cork.  "Unfortunately, I limited my search parameters."


"I searched for who it might be.  I should be searching for what."

"Oh hell," Fordel whispered.

"Probably.  Peralin even tried to warn me it might not be a human, but I really didn't listen.  We know from history that demons do occasionally show an interest in this world."  He looked back at the runes, held his fingers barely a hand's breadth above the one for life and tried to feel -- but he couldn't draw anything more from it.  "Or maybe it's something worse.  You and I are not prepared to handle this, Lord Fordel, not today.  I suggest we leave and get back to Salbay, contact Matish, and prepare for the battle.  Now. Quickly.  Whatever is behind this spell doesn't appear to be watching.  Everything we've triggered has been automatic.  I'm not up to facing something with reasoning behind it as well."

Fordel didn't argue this time.  He looked far less assured than he had when they came up the hill.  Katashan felt the same and that was hard given what little confidence he'd had to begin with.

"People coming, sir!" one of the guards said, coming at a quick jog.  "You'll need to get to cover."

"Damn. We need to keep them away from here," Katashan said.  He shoved cold fingers into his cloak.

"The guards can handle them," Tyos said.  "Cork, I suggest you and your gentleman go with Lord Fordel.  Get out of sight.  Can you find the way back to Salbay through the hills?"

"I can," Cork said.  "I can't say I want to, though since we left the supplies and horses in the camp below."

"I would think you might want our okay on this," Katashan said.  "I don't seem to remember saying I would go to the hills."

Cork looked at him, his lips pursed, and eyes narrowed.  "Sir --"

"All right, all right," Katashan said.  "How long until the others get here?"

"They're coming quickly.  We didn't seem them through the fog until they were most of the way up the hillside, so they've been heading this way since the storm broke.  I'd be happy if you three disappeared as quickly as possible," Tyos said.  He looked at Fordel, who still frowned and looked unlikely to go without a disagreement.  "My lord, you and Katashan are the only two with a chance of stopping whatever is going to happen.  Do you really want to get involved in a confrontation -- friendly or not -- with the local villagers right now?  Do you want them to mistrust you by finding you here?"

"No.  Shall we go, Katashan?"

"After you, Lord Fordel."

Fordel gave a snort of amusement.  Cork had gathered food and flasks from the guards, who would be able to replenish their own supplies from the camp.  Katashan kicked mud and snow over the runes and Cork, wiser, dragged some brunt and broken limbs and piled them atop it.  Katashan hoped it would hide the trouble, at least long enough for the guards to convince the villagers to go away.  The Verina statue didn't glow quite so brightly now, either.

Cork led Katashan and Fordel down the trail from the Verina altar and past the stands of ruined trees.  Katashan wanted to stop and wait, but Cork urged the two along as though he herding recalcitrant sheep.

"Begging your pardons, sirs," Cork said, but didn't slow down, when they both looked back at him.  They had reached a line of live trees:  tall pines, fragrant with the scent of resin, needles and life.  Katashan gasped the air here as they hurried along.  "But it's damned important that the two of you get clear of here as soon as possible.  I'm not going to let Katashan fall back into the hands of anyone who intends to do him harm if I can help it.  And I certainly wouldn't want to see such harm come to you either, Lord Fordel."

"You are not responsible for me, Cork," Katashan said.

"I most certainly am, sir.  The captain himself told me to watch out for you and I intend to do so.  Nothing personal, sir -- but you haven't shown a great deal of ability in taking care of yourself so far, and I think it important you be kept as safe as possible."

Katashan felt his cheeks burn with embarrassment, even though he knew most of what had happened had not been his fault.

They went past a curve in the trail, where a slight hill and a stand of trees stood between them and the site.  He could still feel the darkness back there, but he stopped and turned to Cork intending to set things straight.  "I'm not helpless."

"No sir.  But you aren't --"

"May I borrow your sword, Lord Fordel?" Katashan said.

"I don't know.  I'm not sure I trust you with sharp things. Are you going to cut yourself with it?  If so, I'd rather not hand it over."

"I will not," Katashan said with a bright grin.  Lord Fordel pulled the sword and carefully handed it to him, though with the look that said he didn't trust Katashan's word very much. "Thank you."

"You're welcome.  I think."

He tested the weight, balanced it on his hand for a moment, and nodded.  "Good weapon. Draw your sword, Cork."

"I will not, under any circumstances --"

"Draw your sword."

Cork sighed, obviously realizing this would take longer to argue.  He reluctantly pulled the weapon.  Katashan brought his own sword up.

"Sir, we really shouldn't --"

"This won't take long."

He engaged, forcing Cork to do the same. For the first four parries he moved slowly, carefully, watching Cork's movements.  He saw that Cork did the same, and finally realized Katashan knew swords.

Katashan moved in.  Cork parried -- and again, and by then Katashan knew everything he needed to.  Five heartbeats later he had Cork disarmed.

"That was damned good, sir," he said, retrieving his sword and cleaning the dirt from it.  "Maybe we can talk about swords while we walk?"

Katashan laughed.  He grinned at Fordel who eyed him with a little more suspicion.  It hardly mattered.  Kat balanced the sword in his hand and then flipped it up in the air and caught it again before he gave it back to Lord Fordel.

"You've had a good trainer and I don't mean for that last little trick," Fordel said.  He sheathed the sword.  "Why don't you carry a sword?"

"I didn't want to provoke anyone into a fight," Katashan explained as he drew his cloak back around him, chilled now after the little workout.  Cork had started them moving again.  "I knew I headed to a land where people might find me objectionable just because of my background. And yes, I had a very good trainer.  My father and his. . ."

He stopped and said nothing, wishing he hadn't been that open.

"Your father and his master of the sword," Cork said after a few steps.  "You can stop dancing around it, sir.  It's obvious you're not exactly a commoner."

"True enough, I suppose."

"And out of curiosity, I'd like to know just who you were before you came here," Lord Fordel said.

"Do you know much about my native lands?" Katashan asked.

"Some.  I have some trade delegations at Kirin, the capital."

"Do you?"

"Yes.  It's the kind of work my father and sister despised, and left it in my hands.  Good money to be made, in trade.  And you're dancing around telling us your rank, aren't you?"

"I left who I was behind when I came to here.  But never mind, I think it important that you know, with all else that is going on.  I had left my rank behind along with my family ties, because I never intended to take part in magic again.  My family is well known for many reasons, and one being that the old blood is still strong with us. We carry magic in our veins, Lord Fordel."

"Ah, of course.  Heartblood mage," he said.  He took a couple steps before his eyes had widened  and he almost stumbled.  "As I've heard it, there's only one family in Taris who can make that claim."

"True.  And I am of that family."

"Sir?" Cork said.

"I am Prince Katashan Natarius, nephew to the King of Taris."



Chapter Twenty

Even though Lord Fordel had obviously guessed at his family ties, he still hadn't realized the full extent of his rank.  And Cork . . . Cork just walked in silence for a long, long ways.

Katashan checked to make certain no one followed behind them and then used a little more magic to spread fresh snow over their tracks.  It would, he thought, keep them safe from any trouble at the pass, but now he realized what a long journey they would have back to the fort.

The silence, finally, began to tell on his nerves.  Katashan found it odd, after so long alone, to think this bothered him.  But he had come to enjoy the companionship of his new friends.

"I am not anyone different than whom you knew before," he finally dared say.

Cork look at him with surprise and Fordel glance his way for a moment, though they continued in silence.  He said nothing more.

"All right, sir.  You're right." Cork stopped and turned so suddenly that Katashan nearly fell over him.  "And it's not as though I haven't seen far stranger things than exiled princes.  But can I ask why, sir?"

He should have expected that question, but it caught him off guard.  He fell silent for his own reasons, as he tried to get his thoughts in order, and to present the tale of his life with as little emotional adornment as he could manage.

"Sir, I didn't mean --" Cork began, sounding apologetic, but he stopped when Katashan lifted his hand.

"No, it's all right. I am trying to get the story clear in my mind, to translate it as best I can.  I left Kirin and the castle because the world I had loved was already gone.  I went to war with my brother, and I was captured. They could have ransomed me back home, but my father was out of sorts with me for having left the temple to take up the sword.  So he left me in slavery for more than four years."

"You?" Fordel said.  "I would have thought that you could have saved yourself from that.  Magic didn't help?"

"They had taken my ritual blade," he said, trying to keep all the darker emotions from his voice.  "And they used just enough magic of their own to control slaves.  It took a long time for me to get free.  I escaped, eventually and lived in the hills until I could get my hands on the blade again.  It was no easy task.  Afterwards, I used my powers to help others escape and to form into bands to help protect each other."

"Gods," Fordel whispered and looked at him again.  "How did you survive?"

"I survived by wanting to go home so badly that I wouldn't let anything kill me." Emotions threatened to well up, and he took a deeper breath, because worse than the years of slavery came back now, dark memories laced with such bitterness that he hated to recall the time.  "And I survived by starting an insurrection, Lord Fordel.  I started a rebellion of slaves that I think might still be going on -- a long, bitter war and I can't say which side will win.  But I left it to them, once they no longer needed me.  And I came home."

"But didn't stay there," Fordel said.

Katashan bowed his head, took a breath of bitter, cold air.  He looked up again, and knew the desolation showed in his eyes.  "I did not stay.  There had been a war at home, you see.  Barbarians had broken through on the north, and devastated the countryside nearly to the capital.  They . . . they destroyed my home, and killed my wife and children.  I came home to find only ruins, everything gone and dead.  The choices I had were limited.  I thought I might lie down and die there as well, but instead I came here.  I'm still not certain why."

Silence stretched on again, long and painful until Cork put a hand on his shoulder, meeting Katashan's eyes.  "You came here because we needed you, sir.  And that's better, in the end, then dying for nothing."

He shook his head in bitter denial, unable to speak just then.  But Cork, despite all the urging he'd used to keep them moving, stood his ground and waited for Katashan to speak again.

"It -- It wasn't for nothing," Katashan said, finally, fighting to bring back words in their language.  He had lost it for a moment, drawn back to the past and the pain.  For a moment he saw his wife, his daughters in the garden, singing the way they had the day he left.  He could have stood there, trapped in the memory forever, and not have regretted it.  "It would not have been for nothing.  I loved them.  They were all that kept me alive."

"I'm sorry, sir," Cork said.  "I had not meant to belittle them, sir, or your loss.  Only once death comes between the living and what they love, there is nothing that can change it, is there?  Not all the magic in the world.  And to lie down and die was no answer, sir."

He started to argue, and changed his mind.  "I know.  I never admitted it to myself, but I knew even then.  And that's why I'm here."

"And now it's time to go on, yes?" Fordel asked. 

Katashan started to apologize for having brought such a morose subject to them and changed his mind.  He thought they had probably needed to know, because everything that had happened to him had an affect on his actions now.

"Yes, let's go before anything else happens," Katashan agreed.

Both Cork and Fordel looked back as though they expected an army of demons to spring up at those words.  Perhaps, Katashan thought, they had been foolhardy to say. Katashan found himself doing nothing but concentrating on one step in front of the next.  After a while he realized the trail had been very well-traveled, and through the winter, too.

"Where does this go?" he suddenly asked.

"A hill village," Cork said.  "A place called Holding.  One on the borderland between their mountains and our plains.  It's more a trading post than anything."

"Where the Starlings live?" Kat asked.

"No.  They come from farther inland."

"Well-used path," Kat said, waving a hand at the trail.

Cork stopped and looked down, frowning.  "Yes, you're right, sir.  I don't like the looks of this.  It's never been this well-traveled before that I can remember."

"From one problem to another," Fordel said, shaking his head.  "Forward or back to the pass?  To the unknown or back to deal with the villagers?"

"Forward," Katashan said.  He looked up for the first time in at least half a mile.  The open cliff had given way to woods, and the path wound past a half-frozen brook glitter with ice crystals in the bright daylight.  He hadn't realized it was beautiful.

And that stopped him again.  He looked around, taking the full circle of where he stood, and stopped only when he saw both Cork and Fordel looking at him with worry.

"It's all right.  I just only now realized how blind I've been to beauty.  This is a lovely place.  I should enjoy the walk in such a place."

Both Cork and Fordel glanced quickly around, both of them startled by the words, and maybe by what they had missed as well.

"I think you'd enjoy it more if you weren't half dead," Cork said.

That nearly made him laugh, but he did nod.  "You're right.  But I should accept beauty whenever I can find it.  It is rare in the world these days."

"No," Fordel said.  "Forgive me, but it's not rare.  It's just that you've been too numbed to see it."

"Ah, perhaps you're right."  He felt uncomfortable at the observation, but he pushed the feeling away.  He'd bared his soul to them.  They had needed to know because, like his knowledge of swords, his past might be important to what he would do.  He knew Fordel now had more trust in him -- not because they were both of the ruling class, but because Fordel knew he didn't purposely hide some truths.  Working magic with another required that they both have full confidence in the other's abilities.  Doubt, which Fordel had kept at bay so far, might have played too important a part later.

So he had done right.  He knew it.

They walked on, the trail heading farther into the hills and winding upwards.  Now and then he spied the sea back behind them, the fog lifted now and inviting them back to the warmth of the shore.  Here patches of snow remained in the shadows of trees, while small rivulets of water ran down over the rocky outcroppings, heading toward the brook, and eventually the sea, a sign of spring and warmer weather.

Deer moved away as they climbed higher.  Squirrels and rabbits darted through the shadows, and birds protested their appearance.  He smiled, and wished doing so didn't feel quite so alien.

The air turned cold and thin, and even Cork finally paused and waved a hand to two large boulders.  "Sit down, my Lords. We need to get our breath back.  We don't want to run into any trouble if we're not ready for it."

"I'll never be ready." Katashan gratefully settled on one of the boulders and turned his face up into the sun, basking in the little bit of warmth.  It felt odd, as though he had been lifted out of a deep hole and into the light.  Don't look back, he told himself.  He had to start looking ahead again.

And he did and saw -- movement.

Cork turned, drawing his sword.  Fordel drew his as well, but Katashan could already tell it wouldn't do them a lot of good. They were badly outnumbered.

"Mountain people," Cork needlessly told him.

"Are we in trouble?" Katashan asked.

Stupid question, he thought, as he watched the mountain people rush forward, weapons drawn.  They were always in trouble. . . .

1 comment:

l. v. maclean said...

Okay, I'm hooked; I admit it. The first thing I did when I turned on the laptop was go and look for your blog and the next chapters. And I was richly rewarded. GREAT stuff! Kat's past, although hinted at, was still a surprise (A prince!!!)and the extent of the magic he can work, and the goddess -- and now I have to wait for the weekend. Of course you had to do something with the hill people, and I have a suspicion that they are important for the story ahead.