The ring of eman vath, p.28
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.28

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Twenty-two: Binding

  AmyQuinn rushed forward, heedless of her safety. The smaller boy detached himself from the larger one and managed to regain his feet. While clearly exhausted, he didn’t appear injured. He gestured frantically at the tall, dark-skinned young man, though, trying to form words but unable to do so through his gasping attempts at a full breath. AmyQuinn bent to look at the tall, dark-haired one, and saw again the seeping black wound that seemed to have covered his entire right side. It had soaked into his clothing – some of the fabric even seemed burned –

  “What – how – what happened to him?”

  “Help!” the other boy repeated; it seemed the only word he could manage. “Help!” He continued gasping for breath, and it was clear that she would get no more from him for the time being. And then, without any warning, he sank to his knees and his eyes rolled back in his head. He caught himself against a gnarled stump, though, and managed not to pass out. He shook as if in the grip of a terrible fever, but he continued waving her toward the young man groaning on the forest floor.

  She stopped between the two, thinking desperately. She seemed unable to remember a single one of her Healing lessons; all the Words that had been painstakingly drilled into her head had simply disappeared. She was useless.

  Stop that! she shouted at herself, her anger and frustration cutting through her confusion, panic, and self-loathing. Pull yourself together! You can do this – you know what to do.

  Cudgeled into action, her mind opened and the Words started rushing out, just as she had learned them. She staggered under the weight of them and then turned to the downed young man, who was writhing and moaning in terrible pain.

  Pain – right – take away the pain – take away the pain and then – what, reduce the burns? What’s the word for burns… be careful you don’t get the inflection wrong, you don’t want to bloody set him on fire –

  She raised her hands into place as Master Spall had showed her: she cupped his cheek in one hand and touched the skin over his chest with the other in order to connect herself to the wound.

  Pain, searing hot, rushed through her in a flash of white. She recoiled, gasping, and staggered away. The boy hurried to her side, reaching out a hand to steady her and help her stand.

  “Leave me alone!” she hissed, pulling herself out of his grasp.

  “No, wait, it’s – ”

  “Thyrelin!”

  The Word rolled out of her on instinct alone, one of the first words of Magery that Master Owain had taught them – the word for air. This time she imbued the Word with power effortlessly, and it cracked out of her and struck the boy in the chest, sending him flying backward. He landed on his back and began to cough as if he’d been winded.

  “By the old gods,” he croaked. “That was thoroughly horrible.”

  A crack of thunder split the world behind her, and she spun. There was a hole in the grove now, where the bush had been pulled down by the boys’ passage, and through it she could see out over the side of the hill atop which the grove stood to the surrounding forest. Storm clouds had begun to roll in from the coast, and they were creeping over the land so quickly that they would soon block out all light from the already waning moon and stars.

  But… the clouds weren’t yet dark enough or thick enough for lighting.

  With a growing sense of fear she realized that she hadn’t just heard thunder. There’d been a Word wrapped up in that crack of sound, one she didn’t recognize.

  She spun back to the newcomers, suddenly wary, and clutched her hand tightly to her chest as it trembled with flashes of pain. Who were they? What did she know about them? And why were they in the Wilds by themselves?

  “Why are you running?” she demanded.

  “Well that’s a damn stupid question – we’re being bloody chased!”

  The boy was hovering between her and the young man, who was shuddering as he tried to breathe. He looked awful, and the very sight of him lessened some of the fear in AmyQuinn’s mind and replaced it with confusion. These were just boys, even the bigger one – they couldn’t be much older than she was.

  “Please!” the smaller one exclaimed, pushing dirty hair out of his eyes and beseeching her with a convulsive contraction of his entire body. “He’s hurt and we…” He trailed off as he actually seemed to see her for the first time. He took in her white apprentice clothing with the gold seal of Var Athel on the breast just visible beneath her dark gray traveling cloak. All of her clothing was dirty and travel-stained, but he would’ve had to be a fool not to still see quite clearly who and what she was.

  “You’re a Sorev Ael. You have to help.”

  She said nothing. She wasn’t a Sorev Ael yet, not really, so she didn’t have to do anything. She hadn’t sworn the vows – she didn’t even have a staff.

  What would Valinor tell you to do? You didn’t take the final vow but you did take a vow – you swore on the Book that you would help the helpless.

  Another crack of thunder sounded over the land, and she whirled back around. The clouds were rolling in faster still, unnaturally quick, and they were accompanied by flashes of lightning along the coast. It was all still miles distant, but a feeling of foreboding stole over her, and she only just repressed a shiver.

  Something’s coming.

  She made up her mind. She hurried over to the young man on the ground, who was now curled up in a ball and in such pain that every tendon and vein in his body seemed to be straining to free itself from beneath his skin. She took a deep breath, readying the Words, and shot a glance at the other boy.

  “You still haven’t told me what happened. I need to know. These look like burns, but I don’t know – they’re not normal. If you don’t tell me what happened I could really hurt him – ”

  “Fine, fine! Right, so we were trying to escape from these raiders, those men in the black and silver uniforms – with the Black Ships! We were taken as slaves – I don’t know where he came from, but he was there when I got there – we broke out together – his name is Samson – and we couldn’t go up, so we went down, into the earth beneath the fortress, and there was a bloody Eryn-Ra, and we –”

  “What?!”

  “Yes! That’s what they were holding on the isle! But it’s dead –”

  “You killed an ERYN-RA?!”

  “Not me - him! And then – ”

  “What – but how – ?”

  “I don’t bloody know, he took a sword like some fool idiot out of a story book and the damn crazy fire lizard thing fell on him and then he was covered in blood – ”

  “You’re lying.”

  “I’m bloody not!” the boy protested, looking utterly mad with his halo of dirty hair surrounding his sweat-streaked face from which peered two deep-blue eyes full of shock and wonder. “But we escaped, and we took a boat – he couldn’t walk – we just out-ran them – but you need to heal him, he’s got Eryn-Ra blood all over him and it’s killing him!”

  AmyQuinn looked down at the young man again and took in the black, burned quality of his entire right side. If the boy was telling the truth, then this was way beyond her skill – so far beyond that if she even tried to heal him she might just end up killing herself and him as well.

  But the thought of what Valinor might do flashed through her mind again, and then in rapid succession what all of her teachers back at Var Athel might say to her. She was a Sorev Ael. She had sworn the oath on the Book.

  I have to try.

  But she didn’t even have a staff. She didn’t have anything but the Words, and she hadn’t been able to even light a fire with them an hour earlier. What could she do? She was no good at Healing – that was, if anything, her worst subject.

  No, said a deeper voice that sounded almost like her mother. It rose up and pushed all these thoughts aside and took hold of her, like an adult grabbing a ne’er-do-well child by the ear. No. You have to do this. He’s dying and you’re his only hope.

  “Fine,” she snapped.
She spun around, looking for a place to lay him out. The grove was too tight and covered with roots and rocks beneath the fine layer of grass – she needed room, she needed to see the wound entirely.

  “What are you looking for?”

  “A place to lay him out, I need to look him over – ”

  “This way!”

  She watched the boy pull his wounded companion to his feet with surprising strength and then head back the way they’d come. The young man moaned and shook as he went along, helping as best he could, his eyes rolling in his head like those of a frightened horse. He hissed in pain with every step, and then he began to cough – a deep resounding cough that wracked his whole body.

  “Help me!” the boy said.

  AmyQuinn dove forward and grabbed the young man’s other arm. It was slick with black blood, and a visceral feeling of revulsion swelled up in her, telling her not to touch it. She threw the arm over her shoulder anyway, resting it on her cloak so that the blood wouldn’t directly touch her skin, and tried to support as much of his weight as possible. Together the three of them pushed through the partially torn ivy curtain to a wide ledge. It was clear of rocks and debris, almost as though it had been swept clean, and there was an incline on the far side, up which the boys must have ascended.

  At the head of the ledge, on the highest raised point of the craggy hillside that overlooked the land below, was a tree. The trunk was simple enough, but it grew into a massive collection of branches bright with glints of white flowers just visible in the dying light of the moon and stars. Its exposed roots clung to the cliff with ancient strength, and there was a sense of majesty to it that sent a thrill racing to the tips of AmyQuinn’s fingers.

  The boy directed her toward the tree, and when they were amongst its roots he deposited the young man in the soft, flat grass with an abrupt shrug of his shoulders.

  “Now what?” the boy asked, glancing nervously beyond the tree, down the slope. There was no one there, yet, but AmyQuinn thought she might hear shouting in distance, at the very edge of hearing.

  Heart pounding in her chest, she bent over the young man’s prone form and started muttering incantations. Over and over again she said the Words, running her hands over the burned and blackened skin, but nothing changed. The young man continued to moan in pain, and though the boy tried to hold him still, he began to thrash and shake as well, and AmyQuinn realized that he was barely moments away from a full-blown seizure that could quite likely kill him.

  The distant shouts came again, closer now. The boy heard them too and looked over the craggy side of the hill into the darkness of the forest, panic quite clear on his face, though even that was becoming hard to see. The light was fading: the moon was almost entirely hidden by the gathering storm clouds.

  “Light, I need light!” she whispered in frustration.

  It was only when a small patch of the clouded sky above broke open and let through a thin shaft of moonlight, straight and pure, that she realized she’d spoken in Words without realizing it. She looked up, and her racing heart suddenly jerked to a stop. She stared straight into the stream of moonlight and spoke again:

  “I need help,” she said in Words, imbuing them with power. “Show me how to help him.”

  The illumination widened, and then changed: the soft fall of moonlight shifted to the tree, which flared suddenly with internal brilliance. Its thick, rough skin glowed, and the knobby growths where the limbs met the trunk seemed to shift and flex. The white flowers winked at her, opening and closing under the influence of some supernatural power, and then the world fell away.

  She held up her left hand and touched the trunk. Heat rushed through her and wind buffeted her, springing up from nowhere. She gasped as the fiery sensation coalesced into a ball in her stomach and then exploded into a thousand points of light that saturated her skin. She was rocked back on her heels, and when her hand came away from tree, something heavy and solid came away with it.

  She fell to the ground as the world spun, and the heavy thing fell on her in turn. It cracked against her head and threw stars across her vision, but she managed to grab it, and as her hand encircled the staff she felt something awaken in her that had lain dormant all her life.

  It was like opening a second pair of eyes, one that could see a spectrum of light beyond the everyday. She saw streams of color rushing all around her, rushing through her – saw a halo of light around the boy in front of her that was deep violet with bursts of green and the sounds of singing – saw the tree behind him, the tree that had given her the staff – saw the dark-skinned young man, an Islander, lying on the ground at the foot of the tree –

  Dying.

  She was on her feet again in the next second, all thoughts of anger and frustration gone. The Words she had learned in Var Athel were clear and constant in her head, and the lessons in Healing came back to her completely and all together:

  In an emergency, use the Names you know. Assess the damage first; heal what is hurt, not what is imperfect; preserve the life, then worry about the condition of it.

  “What’s his name?” she asked quickly, throwing off her gray traveling cloak so that she could more easily use her hands. Her dirty white garb shone dully in the moonlight that came through the crack in the clouds above them.

  “Uh – he – Samson, I think –”

  “You think?”

  “Look, that’s what I think he said, I only just bloody met him!”

  She bent back to work. Reaching out toward the blackened, burned skin, she remembered the pain she’d felt when she’d touched him last, but forced herself to touch him again regardless. She winced as the pain flared again, racing through her, but she kept her hand where it was. It was wet, and she tried not to think about the fact that the blood was touching her skin.

  All the stories say that Eryn-Ra blood is death to touch – you shouldn’t be –

  She shook her head as if dislodging an irksome fly and began to speak in Words, the simple ones first – always start simple, then work up to what is needed – using the Minor Arcana since she did not know the Major.

  She repeated the incantations over and over again, checking each time to see if they’d had any effect, but nothing changed. She gritted her teeth and grimaced in frustration, then grabbed the edge of the ragged tunic the young man wore and pulled it, ripping it open to reveal the terrible burns beneath. It was clear that the burns had happened without the fabric – wherever the clothing had come from, it had been placed over the burns, and yet the blood had still seeped through it. How long had the wound been oozing? Days? A week? How was he still alive?

  A waft of smell came from him, rotting flesh, and she nearly retched.

  She laid her right hand against his bare skin and repeated the incantations again, making sure all the Words were in the right place, holding onto her new staff with ferocious determination. Heat rolled into her from it, and the Words she used seemed easier to make than they had ever been before. They crackled in the air and sizzled like water dropped in fire.

  She heard humming behind her and realized that the tune worked with the enchantments she was muttering – that the humming was a harmony. As soon as the realization clicked in her mind, the heat in her body began to swell, somehow amplified. Shocked, she fumbled a Word, paused, and then started a different chant, one that felt right. The humming flitted up and down like the song of a bird and intertwined anew with her Words, giving them strength.

  She missed a phrase, and the enchantment fell apart. She rocked back, catching herself on her staff as the Islander let out a ragged cry from the ground. He tried again to open his eyes, but when he did the whole right side of his body seemed somehow to flex as if in counterpoint; he gasped and threw his head back to the ground, writhing in pain.

  Panicked, AmyQuinn turned to the source of the humming and saw the other boy: he was wringing his hands and pacing back and forth. As his eyes met hers, he fell silent and the humming cut off, taking with it the swell of heat
that had suffused AmyQuinn even after she’d stopped chanting.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I – I didn’t mean to – I hum when I’m nervous – ”

  “Do you know the Words?” she asked, shocked.

  “N – no?” he said, clearly not sure what she meant. “I was just copying you?”

  That answer made no sense – it was impossible to just copy the Words – but she didn’t care. The swell of energy she’d felt was all that mattered. “Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop,” she said. His eyes went wide, but when she turned back and started the enchantment again, he hummed in harmony with her.

  She spoke faster this time, more sure of herself. She spoke all the Healing enchantments she could think of, all the ones she’d been taught, and then began making up her own, recombining the Words in any way she could, cursing herself for not paying better attention.

  Despite her efforts, the young man’s life began to fade away.

  “No!” she exclaimed. She took a firmer grip on her new staff and felt again that reassuring pulse of energy. Her right hand, now coated to the wrist in black blood, burned and throbbed horribly.

  “What’s the matter?”

  “The blood – it’s Eryn-Ra blood, it’s resisting the Words. I – I can’t… ”

  “Can’t what?”

  “I can’t drain it away! I can’t pull it out like poison, and I can’t just heal the burns because they’re there because of the blood, and every time I try to heal them they open up again… ”

  Her vision went sideways suddenly, and she only just caught herself before she collapsed. Her hand throbbed again, and the throb was echoed by a shooting pain that raced up her arm into her head. From there it shot down her spine, forcing her back to arch. The boy threw out a hand to help her, but then recoiled immediately, yelping in pain. She watched in horror as the black blood formed bubbling blisters in her skin that made it look as though she’d dipped her hand in burning oil.

  “Come on!” the boy was shouting in her ear. “Come on! You’re a Sorev Ael! You can do this, you can heal him! You have to!”

  Her whole body began to throb, beating in time with the Islander’s cries.

  “Come on – use your staff or something!”

  She opened her mouth and Words started pouring out of her in combinations she’d never even heard before. It was a running litany of what she wanted to happen, not even a spell – there was no rhyme or reason to it, no carefully measured chanting, just pure, blind intention.

  “Heal him, heal me, use the power – let the power heal us, let him be healed, let me be healed, let us withstand this pain, let the pain fade, let the blood not harm us, let the strength be in us, let the blood be in us without pain –“

  The heat in her swelled, and so did the Words. With a rush of movement, the young man’s body was lifted up and off the ground so that he floated in the air at chest height. AmyQuinn, too focused to be shocked, only reached out and grabbed him with her burning hand to steady him, forcing her blistered fingers to close over his burned right arm, feeling again the blood there, the deep black blood that was still hot like the burning embers of a dying fire.

  The Words became thoughts only, sounds that she couldn’t understand, only desires and hopes and yearning to be healed, to be strong again, and she heard the boy humming behind her, a melody that floated up and above the Words and at the same time flitted through and between them.

  There was a flash of light, and a blow like a horse had kicked her in the chest.

  She felt her feet leave the earth, and then she crashed to the ground several yards away, the breath torn from her chest. She managed to cling to consciousness with whatever small bit of willpower she had remaining, and then all was silence.

  The forest rushed in to fill the void. An owl hooted somewhere; leaves rustled in the slowly growing breeze; tree limbs creaked and rubbed against each other. She could smell the grass and dirt beneath her nose, the clean smell of growth and life, and it convinced her that she was still alive.

  And then she realized the pain in her hand was gone.

  Barely daring to hope, she pushed herself up and swayed to her feet. She looked down: the skin of her hand was whole and unblemished. She searched the ledge for the boy and saw him getting back to his feet some dozen yards away.

  And at the base of the tree, the Islander was moving. The force of the final spell, in whatever shape it had taken, had thrown him onto his stomach, facedown like AmyQuinn. He slowly pulled his hands in and pushed himself up to his knees, then managed to sway to his feet. He unfolded himself to his full height and gripped something in his hand that had been hidden beneath his body up until then: a sword. It was slung at his left hip, opposite his wounded right side, and it was ill-sheathed in a borrowed scabbard that looked like it had seen better days.

  His eyes, one the clear blue of water under cloudless skies and the other a dark, midnight black, looked as shocked as she was. He glanced at the boy, seemed ready to say something, but then ended up staying silent. For a long moment, the three of them just stood there staring at each other, and then the scene shattered.

  Shouts came echoing through the forest up toward them, much closer than they’d been up until then.

  “Wren, they followed us?” Samson asked, looking down over the ledge. His voice was solid and had deep roots. AmyQuinn watched his easy movement with a kind of dumb amazement. Was he fully healed? Had she really managed it?

  “Uh, yes!” the boy, apparently named Wren, retorted. “It’s not like I could out-run them, I’ve been hauling your big Islander butt ever since we hit land! You’re bloody welcome, by the way.”

  “Why are they chasing you?” AmyQuinn broke in.

  She stepped forward in order to confront them, keeping a tight grip on her staff and eyeing Samson’s sword. She felt weak, drained, and the extra sense of sight she’d been granted when she’d first held the staff had disappeared. The world looked as it always had, and currently it looked dark and frightening.

  They were spared answering. The trees at the bottom of the hill shifted with motion, and figures burst out of them, waving torches that sent the night’s shadows skittering away. One of them shouted something in a foreign tongue, pointing up at the ledge where they stood illuminated by what moonlight still streamed through the encroaching clouds.

  “Damn,” hissed Wren. “Time to run!”

  “We can’t,” said Samson grimly. “They’ve got horses.”

  He was right – even as the man in front moved up the path that would take him to the ledge, a dozen others appeared behind him, all mounted and wearing armor beneath dark black cloaks.

  “No,” Wren said, retreating back behind Samson. “We can’t fight them. We have to run – we can climb the trees!”

  “It’s too late for that,” Samson snapped back. “We have to – ”

  But AmyQuinn never found out what they had to do. The trees behind them that led to the grove echoed with sound, and they all three realized other men had rounded the hill and were coming up the other side. They were surrounded.

  AmyQuinn stood frozen in the center of the clearing, her whole world turned upside down. She’d finally earned a staff, and now she was in the middle of an ambush having healed someone she knew nothing about, with an enchantment that should not have worked.

  The world burst into motion, and there was no time left for thought.

  The mounted men raced up the path to the ledge in a matter of seconds, and the sounds from the grove grew closer. The night was burned away by bright haloes of torchlight, and then came the sound of swords being drawn from their sheathes.

  Two of the attackers broke off and made straight for AmyQuinn.

  “Thyrelin!”

  The word was out of her mouth before she had time to think about it, and as soon as it leapt from her lips it took on a will of its own. She felt the staff warm in her hand, and then the Word swelled and widened and struck both men in the chest, knocking them of
f their horses and flattening them to the ground.

  “They have a mage!” roared a voice in an accent so thick it was almost unintelligible.

  Damn right they do, she thought fiercely.

  She spun again and raised her staff before her.

  “Crainlith!”

  The sound turned into a Word, a thought that sounded like burning flame, and she brought the staff crashing back down to earth as she threw her right hand out before her. A ball of flame shot through the night and hit a man square in the chest, exploding over him and catching his tangled beard on fire. He screamed in pain, and the two men beside him dove away as he fell to the ground.

  “Watch where you’re throwing that stuff!” Wren shouted as he beat his tattered clothing. She ignored him, keeping her staff firmly connected to the ground.

  “Get him – no, watch the sword – Argh!”

  She turned to see Samson fighting beneath the tree on the ledge; her mouth dropped open, and she gaped in shock. His whole right side was awash in golden light, and the sword in his hand glowed as if on fire from within. The steel was pockmarked with black stains along one side, and the point was covered in black liquid that disappeared even as AmyQuinn watched, sucked into the metal; soon the whole blade appeared again unscarred.

  Samson turned and spun faster than any of his attackers, and with the staff in her hand AmyQuinn could feel the power coming off of him in waves.

  How is that possible? How is he using… is he using Words?

  Rough hands grabbed her from behind and hauled her back, and she screamed out, “Thyrelin!”

  The hands released her as the men attached to them were thrown away by the power flooding through her. Wren ducked as they flew past, diving and rolling over the burned body of another man, from whom he slipped a dagger. He held the small piece of metal before him, looking around, trying to see everything at once. Two men rushed for him, and AmyQuinn motioned with her staff, ready to unleash another Word, drawing on the power inside her –

  But Samson was there, interposing himself between them and her, swinging the sword in a deadly arc that knocked aside the clumsier broadswords of the attackers and stopped the men in mid-stride. They tried to recover, turning the attack into a chance to regroup, but Samson ran forward and threw his shoulder into the closest one.

  The shoulder he used was the one that had been wounded, and both Wren and AmyQuinn winced in anticipation of pain. There was none. Instead, the light that suffused Samson’s right side swelled just as he hit the armored man, and a crunching sound filled the hillside. The attacker shot through the air, twisted, and landed in a heap several yards away. He did not rise.

  His fellows suddenly backed away, watching Samson as if he were a lion that had escaped its cage. The echo of the Word for force ran through AmyQuinn’s mind, and she was staggered.

  How did he do that?

  Samson, for his part, looked as shocked as she was.

  Lightning flashed through the sky directly overheard, and she felt the supernatural quality of it echo all around her. She looked back down the slope, fear squeezing her lungs like a fist. A man in a black hood stepped forward from the path up the hillside. He brandished a small, pointed object in her direction, and then spoke a phrase that burned and hissed as it crossed the distance between them.

  A ball of black fire appeared from nowhere shot toward them.

  Wren, Samson, and AmyQuinn dove away in three separate directions, scattering as the black fire tore past them to crash into the underbrush nearby, where it lit natural red and gold flames that began to eat away at the grove despite the rain and wind.

  Rain and wind?

  It was only then that AmyQuinn became aware of the dark clouds above. The storm had finally rolled in all the way, blanketing the sky so thoroughly that had not the light of the sorcerous fire and the torches been lit, the grove would have been in utter darkness. The rain that fell from the black clouds hissed and whispered in the soft grass and clumped the dirt into mud.

  The man in the black hood stepped forward. Ever his gait seemed wrong and dangerous: he walked as if on a stroll through a park, as though he knew that there was no danger for him here. He raised the object in his hand again, and spoke another dark, twisted phrase.

  Samson reacted first. He threw Wren behind him as another ball of black fire shot through the night. He swung his sword, and the glowing metal sliced through the ball of fire, sending it shooting into the darkness.

  The man in black stopped and fixed his eyes on Samson.

  “You,” he said simply. Then, all pretense thrown aside, he rushed them with renewed intensity, shouting burning enchantments that AmyQuinn couldn’t even try to understand. He threw a constant stream of black fire at Samson, and the young man only just managed to evade it, swinging his sword as quickly as he could to fend it off. Wren rolled out from behind him and flicked his wrist, throwing the small dagger he’d stolen. The sorcerer flicked his hand and sent the gleaming metal shooting away into the night.

  “Crainlith!” AmyQuinn cried, smacking the foot of her new staff against the earth and focusing the Word into the palm of her right hand. She thrust out her fist, and a wave of burning power rippled through the air and crashed into the dark sorcerer; flames licked at his clothing, caught at his hem, rushed up his body as if eager to consume him… and then abruptly died.

  The hood of his cloak fell back, and a mask of bone stared out at her, horribly lifelike, as though the man had stripped away the flesh of his face to expose the skeleton beneath. A pair of malicious eyes glittered deep in the dead sockets, and she gaped in horror as they turned their gaze on her. He raised his hand and opened his mouth to speak a curse, to unleash some terrible dark power, and she knew it was the end, knew that there was nothing she could do to block him.

  Wren rushed from concealment and leapt onto the man’s back, digging his reclaimed dagger into the man’s exposed neck. The gleaming metal slid easily beneath the skin, and the skeletal green gaze suddenly lost its brilliance. The sorcerer jerked where he stood and then fell to his knees. Wren clung to him all the way, holding the dagger where it was, his eyes wide and teeth bared. The man fell facedown against the earth, shuddered once, and then was motionless.

  Wren looked up at the other two, and then slowly stood back from the man, leaving the dagger where it was.

  “I… I’ve never… ”

  He cut off, swallowing hard. His face was bloodless, and he looked as though he might be sick.

  “You had to,” AmyQuinn said. “He would have… if you hadn’t… ”

  Wren was nodding, but that horrified look never left his eyes.

  A flickering, golden glow caught her attention, and she turned to Samson. He was holding up the sword and staring at it in wonder. It glowed with golden light, and so did the hand that held it. The right side of his face, torn and scarred, was illuminated as well, and the single black eye had turned a deep, burnished gold. More light seemed to leak out from beneath his clothing, all along his right side.

  And then just as quickly as it had appeared, the light winked out.

  Samson staggered as though he’d been hit upside the head, and then fell to his knees. AmyQuinn rushed for him, and Wren was not far behind. She reached him just as he fell and helped lower him to the ground, grabbing and turning him over so that he rested on his back. His eyes were closed, and he lay limply, but his breathing was steady, if hurried, and the signs of pain he’d showed before were gone.

  She felt his chest, then held two fingers to his neck. His skin was covered in deep red-purple scars that appeared almost black in the night.

  “Is he –?”

  “He’s alive,” she said.

  “Then what happened?”

  She swallowed hard, trying to work moisture back into her mouth.

  “I have no idea.”

  She looked up, and they stared at each other for a long moment, not sure what to do, until the next shout brought them back to reality. Bo
th of them were on their feet again immediately, spinning about to look back down the way the men had come. There was a new figure there, this one on foot and bearing a torch just like the others. He saw them and pointed, and then pointed beyond them at something else.

  AmyQuinn and Wren spun back the other way, and saw that the black fire the dark sorcerer had thrown had not sputtered out in the rain, but instead slowly begun to eat away at the sheltered underbrush of the grove. Smoke was rising into the air, and flames had begun to leap to nearby patches of dry leaves.

  “By the old gods,” Wren whispered.

  “We have to go,” she said. She ran back through the torn ivy curtain into the grove, searching through the growing haze of smoke for her mare. She found it almost immediately: her eyes were rolling in her head, and she reared back as AmyQuinn approached, frightened by the fire and the shouting but unable to slip the knotted rope that kept her tied in place.

  Wren followed, pulling Samson with him, and for the moment they lost the pursuing men, who were exclaiming over the fire and the downed men on the ledge.

  “Where are we going?”

  “To my master,” she said quickly, not knowing what else to do.

  “Your master? What does that mean?”

  “He’s a Sorev Ael, just trust me – ”

  “Trust you? Look, I’m not going anywhere – ”

  “If you stay here you die.”

  He watched her for a beat.

  “You make good points,” he said.

  “Wait – catch that horse!”

  One of the horses of the downed men had just raced into the grove past them, trying to avoid the flames, rearing and stamping its feet. Wren dumped Samson and caught its reins, calming it as best he could and pulling it toward the mare. A second horse, following the first one’s lead, burst into the clearing too. AmyQuinn rushed for this one herself and grabbed it.

  “Help me get Samson up!”

  Wren hurried over to help, pulling his horse with him.

  “Hold his leg!”

  “I have his leg –”

  “That’s his arm –”

  “What – no, it’s a leg!”

  “JUST GRAB THIS APPENDAGE!”

  “FINE!”

  They got the unconscious Islander on the horse, where he swayed dangerously. The flames continued to grow and the heat that poured off of them was so intense that they were forced to retreat as far as they could to the other side of the grove. Wren pulled himself up and tied young man to the horse by wrapping Samson’s hands around the animal’s neck and tying them together with a torn strip of his shirt.

  “We need to go!” AmyQuinn insisted.

  “By the – do you want him tied down or not?!”

  “Just make it so he doesn’t fall off!”

  “Look, I’m trying to, lady!”

  “Follow me,” she said, “and make sure he doesn’t fall!”

  They raced off into the night, the sounds of pursuit ringing out behind them.

 
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