(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)
The soldiers never tired on the trail Peralin had laid for them. They climbed upward at a run, startled by the power and quick and sure in their movements, no matter what the terrain. They darted over rocks and ice, across brooks and streams with the same ease as walking a flat land. Serrano and Katashan, riding the only horse, never had to slow for the others.
Up and up . . . they passed a startled owl and then they reached the trees Katashan remembered, and even from here they could see the smoke of the village and hear the faint yells of battle. That the villagers still fought gave Katashan hope as they crested the last hill and came in view of the battlefield.
Serrano's soldiers came up behind the others, and with the understanding that these men were rebels against their true lord, they had no problem at all falling upon them.
Katashan stayed well back from the battle, leaning against a tree and waiting for it to end -- and for the world to settle around him. Even the tree didn't feel as solid as it should be, and the morning light swirled in shades of yellow and orange which could not be real, at least to this realm. He closed his eyes and stayed very still.
Serrano left a guard with him, who seemed very glad not to be joining the fray -- what little of it remained. Serrano's soldiers, even after their magical race to reach Holding, hadn't tired, while the rebels had been fighting all night. They also had surprised the enemy by coming from behind and from an area without a trail.
In the end, none of the enemy survived, but only because they wouldn't give up the battle. Serrano's men had no choice but to kill them all. In those last few moments they made fast work of the job while Katashan kept his head bowed and stared at the ground, which had an unfortunate habit of seeming to move beneath his feet.
"Sir," Cork said, suddenly by his side.
"Praise the Gods you're all right," Katashan said, lifting his head, and nearly losing his balance.
Cork caught hold of him. "Wish I could say the same for you, sir! Here, sit down. I've got you."
He let Cork lower him to the ground. He had a hard time keeping his head up now, but he looked at Cork, who knelt beside him, his face pale and his arm bleeding.
"Fordel? Onshara?" Katashan asked, fearing the answers.
"Both alive. Lord Fordel took another bad cut, but he should be fine. Onshara is seeing to her people."
"I should --" he started to stand, but Cork pushed him back down.
"No, sir. You need to stay right there for a while. You're pale as a ghost --"
"She disappeared shortly after you did. She lost track of you, and she lost interest in anything else here. But I'll keep my eyes open, sir. I'll let you know if she comes back, but I doubt we'll see her before nightfall. And if that's so, you should rest and be prepared to deal with her then."
"Lean against the tree and rest. The Gods know when we might need your help again, and you don't look well enough to give it right now."
He leaned back and closed his eyes. They were moving the bodies, clearing the battlefield. He wanted nothing more to do with it.
Later, he became aware of people around him. His eyes fluttered open to a day filled with bright light and shadows. Cork still sat beside him, Fordel nearby with Serrano and Onshara. They had food, and a flask of something they passed around.
"Would you like a sip, sir? This is very good wine. Onshara brought it out for us."
"Just a sip," he said. His voice sounded ragged and his lips felt so dry they hurt to move when he spoke. He tried to lift his hand to take the flask, but Cork shook his head and brought it to his lips for him. Katashan could not have held it there.
The wine tasted cool and sweet. Human wine and very unlike the last sip of anything he'd had -- a drink from one of Peralin's goblets. The sip helped. He nodded his thanks to Cork and blinked the others back into focus. "Gods, I'm tired," he said.
The others nodded understanding. Even Serrano looked worn, though he'd slept the night before.
"You left in the company of a God," Onshara said.
"Ah." He had forgotten, for a moment, how that part would affect the others. "It is not such a big thing --"
"You really don't believe that," Fordel said with a shake of his head.
"I want to."
Onshara gave a little smile. He saw dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep and they still looked red from tears. He wondered how many villagers she had lost. He didn't ask.
"We have decisions to make," Fordel said, though softly. "And we hoped you would be well enough to help us work this out, Katashan."
"Decisions?" Why would they wait on him for decisions? This was not his place, and he wished . . . but he couldn't even let that thought fully form. He looked up and nodded.
"My people aren't safe here," Onshara said. "Fordel has offered to leave troops to our defense, but. . ."
"But does he have the troops to spare, given the trouble we are facing?" Katashan asked. "And would your people feel safe with them?"
"Those are the problems," she agreed and frowned.
"Would you and your people come and stay in the safety of the fort?" Serrano asked. "At least long enough to see how this problem might be settled?"
Fordel nodded at the suggestion and looked hopeful. Onshara didn't look as certain, but that was only -- Katashan suspected -- because the mountain people and those who lived on the shore had rarely found themselves on the same sides of a battle.
"This is a bigger war than anything from the past." Katashan painfully leaned forward and put a hand on her knee. "Take your people to safety, Onshara. We don't have time for old disagreements and distrust."
"Yes," she said and nodded more emphatically as though she took the answer to heart once she spoke the word aloud. "Yes, we'll go to the fort until this bigger question is settled. I'll begin gathering my people for the journey. It will not take long."
He almost told her not to forget the book, but that was a useless thing to say. The entire village revolved around keeping that book safe and generations had grown up doing so. He did not imagine they would forget it now.
"I'll send scouts ahead to prepare for the incoming villagers," Serrano said. "Katashan, do you think your passage will be open for us to go back again?"
"As long as we are back before nightfall," he said and shivered at the thought of taking that journey again -- ah, but far better than going the long way. "We had better hurry."
Onshara stood. "Yes, hurry. We will pack what we can carry."
Katashan didn't really want to hurry again, but he nodded. Cork handed him some cheese. He was very nearly too tired to eat it.
And then he slept again for a while.
When they prepared to leave, he rode with Cork on a horse that had probably belonged to the enemy. He didn't care. He didn't look back to see what they had done with the dead. Katashan only noted that Onshara carried the book and she had adequate protection around her. He noted she also carried a goblet Peralin had left behind when he and Katashan rode away. Oh yes, it would be carefully guarded as well, until the owner might claim it again. It seemed the people of Holding were apt to collect odd relics.
The horse had a gentle gait as they started down the hill. Despite being worried, Katashan found himself eager to leave. He wanted back to Salbay and the relative safety of the walls there.
And he tried not to think that nothing they'd set out to do had been accomplished, and that matters had gotten worse instead of better.
"We'll get you back to the fortress soon enough, sir."
"Too soon," Katashan mumbled. "This is the most peace I've had in days."
Katashan didn't dare sleep while he held on to the path for the others to follow. As they rode he felt bits of it slipping away in the growing shadows, but he thought they would reach the lowlands soon enough. Even so, he had a strange waking-dream, troubling at some levels, but not unpleasant. He imagined he had met the Immortal Mage, Aster, and he'd even talked with the man, and had a pleasant discussion with him, though he didn't actually know what they said.
He shook himself back to reality, feeling uneasy and uncertain. He didn't want to feel akin to this man who created a monster like Sherina.
When he lifted his head, he found they had nearly reached the gate of the fortress. The townspeople watched them pass through the outer village, curious but not hostile. The sun had settled low on the ocean, a beautiful sunset of golds and blues.
They reached the fortress. There would be safety, and rest, within those walls. The sight of it gave him a little strength, but when he started to sit up straighter, every bone and muscle ached. He moaned.
"Ah, back again, sir?" Cork asked from behind him.
"I'd rather not be."
"Yes, sir. I know the feeling. But we're nearly there. A bath and bed, maybe some nice broth between --"
"I could stand that," Katashan said, rousing a little more at the thought of a bath.
"Kat, yes. Sorry. Damned tired, sir."
"Ah, of course." He had, in fact, forgotten that others might be very tired by now -- battle-weary, as well as having missed sleep. "It will be good to sleep again."
"Yes, Kat, it will."
They reached the gate behind Serrano who ordered it open. Katashan remembered going through it the last time, although he couldn't quite get his thoughts to focus around that time. Just as well. If he thought too hard, it might keep him awake.
The gate slowly opened. Too many people began to gather in the courtyard, and for a moment the sight worried him, until he realized these people quickly brought out tables with food for their unexpected guests. Others looked prepared to treat the wounded. Onshara's people would get a good welcome here.
The horse came to an uncertain stop inside the gate and Cork could not get him to move in any direction.
"Damned animal," he said. "If I get down and lead it, can you stay in the saddle that long, Kat?"
"I doubt it," he answered. "I could lie down right here and sleep."
"Not for long in the path of everyone else."
"I wouldn't notice."
"Ah, probably true. Race! Come lead this damned horse out of the way, will you?"
A young, dark-haired stable boy rushed forward and took hold of the harness, coaxing the animal off to the side where Cork directed. They passed the tables and with each step into the courtyard, Katashan felt as though peace enveloped them within the high, thick walls.
"Here, I've got him, Cork," Serrano said. Katashan looked down to find the Captain beside the horse, reaching upwards. "Come down, Katashan. We'll get you inside."
Katashan looked around, noting everyone finding their own places here. They did not, praise all the gods, need his help right now. They moved, colors and shadows, and he couldn't quite focus. He watched as Fordel slipped from his horse and stood, supported by Onshara. Her people looked grateful for the refuge and the help.
Katashan tried to get his leg up over the pommel, but it would not cooperate. Cork finally pushed him from the saddle and into the hands of Serrano and another soldiers.
"Your pardon," he said, and then realized he spoke in a language they didn't understand. "I'm sorry," he said. He wasn't sure for which, though -- the language or the fall.
"You're fine. Let's get you inside. We need to discuss what to do next," Serrano said.
He moaned. He desperately wanted rest. Sleep. Tonight, tomorrow. For a long time. Let the world be in someone else's care.
He heard a sound and looked back to see Sherina screaming out of the darkening sky towards him and he almost didn't have the strength left to care. Fordel must have seen. He moved towards Katashan and tried to throw a block of a shield in her direction. However, the magic only angered Sherina, and she swung down towards the pale, and still bleeding, Fordel with a yowl of anger.
Katashan moved to help, where his own safety would not have won much of a response. He pulled free of Serrano and the soldier, pushed Cork aside and grabbed at his ritual knife. No time for subtlety. He cut straight into the wrist and brought enough blood to his fingertips to splatter her with fire and light.
The ploy worked. She screamed and fled before his power.
Cork grabbed hold of him as he fell, and even breathing became nearly impossible now. People spoke, but he couldn't understand them. He only knew he had to make them safe from his enemy.
Katashan reached over and laid his hand against the wall, urging the power of a ward up through the stones. More and more until he felt he was almost a part of the fort, the stones melding into his soul, the place forever apart of him.
"Make certain everyone is inside tonight," he said softly, each word more difficult than the last. "Inside the ward."
And then Katashan felt the world go out from under him. No meeting tonight. No food and no bath either. Just blessedly empty darkness.
Katashan awoke and turned his head though even that much movement proved difficult. He found a candle beside the bed fluttering and nearly gutted in the liquid wax left behind. Nearly dawn, he thought. Cork slept on a cot beside the bed.
Someone else stood in the room as well.
Katashan sat up with a start his hand moving. He found they'd wrapped his wrists in cloth and he grabbed at the knife --
"Calm, friend." Pater Matish crossed to the side of the bed and within the little circle of light. "I had hoped not to awaken you."
Cork sat up, blurry-eyed, his hand on a sword beside the cot. "What?" he asked, uncertain of the danger.
"I'm reinforcing the wards," the priest said softly. "You're safe. Go back to sleep."
Katashan fell back among the pillows and blankets, suspecting Pater Matish had reinforced the suggestion of sleep with a little magic. For a moment Katashan thought about fighting the compulsion. Then he decided he wanted to sleep instead.
However, this time the sleep proved less restful. Almost immediately images began to shift their way into his consciousness. He relieved the journey with Peralin, and tasted the air of a place that was not part of this world. He saw the colors, and felt Night beneath him. He also remembered the pain so acutely he knew he cried out. Cork quieted him, and he slipped back again. . . .
To another dream memory: This time he held the ancient book. He stared at old words swirling with powers he couldn't touch or understand. He tried to absorb them into his mind, but they slipped away and he saw nothing except the drawing. And then the picture looked at him. He felt as though he should know this man . . . that he needed to know this man.
He came awake. Cork sat by the bed, cleaning his sword.
"I need to see the book."
Cork leapt from his cot, sword in hand, and his eyes wide. Then he sagged, almost leaning on the sword while he caught his breath.
"Well, we don't have to move quite that fast," Katashan said and moved slowly to sit up.
"You were dead asleep a moment I ago. I checked myself. Closer to dead than asleep, in fact."
"My apologies for coming back to life." Cork took several deep breaths, obviously still recovering from the start though he looked pleased. "How long have I been asleep or half dead?"
"All of one entire day, sir. Kat." He finally moved back to the chair and sat, putting the sword aside. A bruise covered the back of his right hand, and another showed at the side of his neck, where a bandaged also covered a wound -- damned close, that one. "It's sunset of the day after we arrived. The others have been worried about you."
"But not well."
"Better is as good as I can manage just now and nothing to complain about, considering all that happened. The others?"
"Doing well, sir. Lord Fordel was down for most of the day and had taken a bit of a fever from the wound, but Pater Matish cleared that up. There's been some talk about Lord Fordel and magic. That's likely to lead to trouble later, but for now the people are mostly glad to know they have some protection, having seen what they're up against. Sherina came to the walls last night. She couldn't get in."
"That's good. I hope this goes well for him." Katashan slowly shifted his legs off the edge of the bed, trying to ignore every ache and pain. He felt almost ill at first and took everything slowly. Cork watched him with a growing frown. "You aren't going to try to argue with me about this, are you? Do you really think we have time?"
"No sir, I won't. You're right." He leaned back in the chair, plainly not in any hurry to get up either. "It's the book, is it? I believe Onshara still has it in her possession. She and Lord Fordel have gone over the pages a few times already but not found anything as far as I can tell."
"Which will probably be the same for me, but I must go look."
Cork nodded and stood. "I've got clean clothes, if you like."
"A shirt at least. And can you arrange for that bath when I get back?"
"Yes sir. I can do that," Cork said. "We have a guard at the door, by the way. Captain Serrano feared I was too worn to do the work properly."
Cork went to the door giving quick orders before he came back and began fishing through some clothing for a shirt. "This one, I think, sir. And let me help. "
Katashan almost told the man that he could dress himself, but he wasn't entirely certain it was true. With Cork's help they took half the time it would have if he'd tried to do it alone. Cork even pulled his hair back into a tie. He wished there had been time for a bath, but not with the darkness and Sherina both no doubt very close. He stood took a couple steps, getting the feel for ground under his feet again. His legs ached but walking would probably help.
"I'm ready," Katashan finally said. Cork watched him for a moment more and finally nodded agreement.
The guard saluted as they left the room, which amused Katashan, who wasn't certain what sort of rank he supposedly held here these days. Companion to Peralin probably rated at least a salute, though.
The building seemed busy with servants everywhere in the hall, obviously caring for a number of people. They smiled and greeted both him and Cork. Those with food tried to press tidbits on Katashan, and he finally ended up with a sweet cake and an apple. Cork smiled brightly. Kastashan, realized the gifts meant he had found acceptance here, at least among the servants. He wondered why.
They found Onshara in the great hall, sitting on the stones by the hearth and looking over the book. She smiled brightly at the two and immediately made room for Katashan beside her. Cork pulled a chair over from the table and settled, forgoing any sort of formality.
"You look better, Katashan."
"I assume so, since I have been given to believe that I looked dead prior to this."
She laughed and put a hand on the back of his hand. He almost shied away from the touch, and she must have seen the reaction, but she didn't pull back. "I am grateful for all you did at my village, Katashan. We would not have survived without your help."
"I did what I should," he replied. The hearth felt warm, but the stones hard and he wished he could be back in bed right now. But no time . . . no time at all. "And I'll help you get your homes back as well, if this is in my power. But right now, I came to look at the book."
"Ah yes. We have all had our chance to look at the book. This is a very popular tome. I cannot think of the last time the pages have been turned so often."
She carefully placed the heavy book in his lap and slid closer to him. He became too aware that she'd had a bath and smelled of sweet soap and oils . . . and he had not. However, he knew more than her cleanliness unsettled him, as though just her closeness touched on raw nerves. He fought the feeling down and turned his attention to the book.
The pages immediately took his attention. She'd had the book open to a page of plant drawings and he turned a few more, marveling at the work. The man had been a fairly good artist, and Katashan easily recognized some of the plants, and could even guess at what the notes meant. That might give him some chance to figure out the language. Eventually.
They didn't have that much time.
He carefully folded the pages back to the front piece and the drawing of the man. He stared, wondering if this was a mirror image if the man drew from looking in a mirror. He tried to imagine the picture flipped . . . And then he realized Cork frowned as he looked at the picture.
"I know that face, sir. I feel like I know him."
"Then it's not just me," Katashan said, startled.
"This is the first time I've really looked. I wish I could tell why I think I know him, though."
"That's my problem," Katashan said and leaned back. He smiled when he saw Serrano, Fordel and Pater Matish coming into the room.
And then he looked back down at the book.
"Oh hell," Cork said.
"I thought you would realize soon," Pater Matish said with a little wave of his hand. He came and looked down at the book, a slight smile on his lips. Fordel and Serrano both turned to stare at him. "Yes, I am the one who wrote the book."
"You?" Serrano said. He sounded as though he thought the man could not know what he was saying. "You can't be."
"I am." He looked around at the others, and in the turn of the head, Katashan could clearly see the resemblance. "My name is Aster. I was born . . . oh, long before the wars. And yes, Lord Fordel, I was the one who taught your sister her first real magic. She could be quite charming, you know, when she wanted something. Only when I started telling her not yet or daring to tell her no outright, that I learned her true nature. I quickly changed my mind about teaching her more. I did not do the ritual at the Verina altar."
"Who then?" Katashan asked. Oddly, he didn't feel shocked. He had finally found someone with answers.
"Not who. What. She learned too well from me, and I quickly saw her ambitions knew no bounds. I tried to dissuade her."
"Sherina always got what she wanted," Fordel replied. He still looked surprised as he and Serrano sat on the hearth. Only Pater Matish remained standing, looking with uncertainty at the four as though he faced some court.
"Yes, she did have a will of iron, your sister. And that's what fuels her still." He looked back to Katashan, as though to forget the rest of the people around them. "I confessed to her about my own life and my immortality. She went in search of the answer when I said I wouldn't do the ritual, and she awakened many ancient beings in her attempts to get one to give her my . . . gift. Peralin isn't the only one wandering in the world now."
"Why didn't you stop her?" Katashan asked.
"I couldn't." He sounded, in that moment, as much embarrassed as annoyed. "By the time I realized her plans, she had drawn the interest of someone -- something -- powerful. Look to Emista. He created my immortality. She told me once she thought she could get at least that from him. We laughed. I should have realized she meant those words."
"Emista?" Fordel asked. "I don't know this name."
"One of the very old gods from the north, long gone from here, even before the rest had been expelled," Katashan said. "He's the God of Ice, and in legend he is always looking for a human woman to warm his heart. In ancient times they sacrificed a young woman to him to bring back the spring."
"And she went to him for immortality," Matish said with a shake of his head. "I fear Sherina never really thought through all the logical steps."
"So what did she get?" Katashan asked. "Neither life nor death and she is still a slave to the dark god. Are you?"
"No. Emista found me too dangerous." He gave a sudden, bright grin. "He hadn't had much contact with humans for a long time before we fell in together. He learned a great deal about how tenacious and troublesome we can be in the century that I served him. He finally cut me loose."
"Can you undo the magic that has tied her to this form?" Fordel asked.
"I would undo myself as well," he said, looking at Lord Fordel. "I like life, even still."
"What did you learn from Emista?" Katashan asked, sitting forward, aches nearly forgotten in that moment. "What can we use?"
"I fear I don't know nearly enough," he confessed. "But I did write many things down in the book, between pictures of plants and rather poor poetry. We'll find some answers there, even if I have forgotten them. That's one thing I learned, Katashan. The mind can only hold so much information."
"We can't read it," Katashan said, running his finger over the print.
"But I can. I wrote it," Aster looked at Onshara, whom Katashan only now noticed sat almost stone still. Why not? Her people had watched over this book forever. She could not have expected to find the author come back. "I put the book in the care of people I trusted. I'm grateful for the care you have shown it. You may have saved us all by doing so."
"Thank you, my lord," she whispered. She blushed. "What can we do?"
"I have to read the book," he said. "It will take me a little while to remember some of the words but I should have it by morning."
Matish -- Aster -- held out his hands. Katashan felt a moment of trepidation, but he handed the book over. Aster put his hand on the cover, smiling softly, as though he found some old friend whom he hadn't seen in a long time. How much of his past could he hold on to? How long had he lived?
"I want a bath now," Katashan said.
Cork laughed as the stood, stretching slowly before he reached a hand to help him up. "I've ordered it ready, sir. And there will be food as well when you're done. Is there anything else needs done down here?"
Katashan stood, though more slowly. He wanted a warm bath and he might even use some of the scented oils he had brought from home. He craved a little luxury tonight.
Serrano looked up at him, frowning before he glanced back at Aster. The Captain obviously couldn't quite come to grips with what he'd learned. Katashan leaned down and put a hand on Serrano's shoulder, drawing the look back to himself again. "Rest easy, friend. We need his help, and you have known him a long time, even if not by the proper name."
Serrano looked at Aster once more. "Trust."
"Well, you are more than welcome to sit here and keep me company, Captain and Onshara. And you too, Lord Fordel, of course. I would think all of you could keep your eyes on me well enough, and Lord Fordel knows magic enough to keep you all safe from me."
Katashan left them to discuss the matter. He and Cork had a long walk back up to the room, but by the Gods, the bath waited for him when he got there.
He slept in the water for a while, and finally got out to a warm robe, good soup, and then a wonderful warm bed again. He slipped back to sleep and this time he didn't even dream, having put the problems in the hands of the others.