The ring of eman vath, p.31
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.31

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Twenty-four: Pursuit

  They raced through the southern gate and into the forests south of Fort Turin with all the speed they could manage. The fort was mobilizing as they left, horns and drums beating from both within and without the walls, all movement flowing in the direction of the northern wall save for them.

  AmyQuinn turned for one last look and saw the man in the bone mask walk through the broken gate and begin throwing handfuls of black fire at the approaching soldiers, while dozens of armored men in the silver-and-black rode in hot on his heels and began laying about them with swords and spears.

  “Master, we have to help them!” she shouted as they raced away.

  “The only help we can give is to lead him away!” Valinor shouted back, holding his staff high in one hand as they rode. A pulse of light emitted from it that was soundless and yet somehow heavy – it rippled through the air back toward the pass, and with every ripple there was a brief hitch in the sound of battle.

  “What they want is us!”

  “But why?”

  Valinor shook his head.

  They took the main road for as long as they could, urging their mounts into a sprint for the first few hundred yards and then easing up into a trot, eating up distance but sparing their mounts. They hurried through the forest Valinor and AmyQuinn had so leisurely passed through only a week before, and then continued on as quickly as they could, not stopping for food or rest. The morning slid quickly into noon, and then just as quickly into night, and though they saw no sign of the thanomancer behind them, none of them seemed eager to stop.

  “Come here,” Valinor said quickly as they reined in by the light of the setting sun. She dismounted and hurried over; Wren came more reluctantly.

  The Sorev Ael muttered something and laid a hand on her, then touched a single finger to her brow, right between her eyes. Energy rushed through her, and she felt suddenly as if she could run a hundred miles. She realized she’d been slouching, her exhaustion pulling down her shoulders, and she stood up straight and shook her braid back over her shoulder.

  “It is false energy,” he said as he did the same for Wren and then the horses. “It will get us through the night, but we will be doubly tired on the morrow. It is a risk, a terrible one to take, but if we put enough initial distance between us and him, there is a chance we will evade him entirely until we reach Var Athel.”

  They mounted again, and AmyQuinn felt a swell of excitement rush through her that was completely unexpected. It was the enchantment, she knew that, but still she could not help but lay herself out over her horse’s mane with a grin, feeling the wind as it whipped through her hair.

  The enchantment lasted until sunrise. They rode all through the night, dogged by fear and uncertainty, waiting every second to hear the sound of pursuit hot on their heels, though it never did. When dawn came, she felt as though every muscle in her body had been pulled out, sounded beaten, and then replaced haphazardly, so that no limb functioned quite correctly and no motion was smooth.

  “Rest,” Valinor said, motioning to a grassy clearing by the side of the road. They were on the official King’s Road now, the one that went from Fort Turin all the way to Var Athel and Caelron, but there was no foot traffic at this hour. They were far from the other villages that lined the road, and it was too early for other travelers to be awake. “I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

  AmyQuinn did not need further encouragement. She was asleep immediately after lying down, and her last thought before she nodded off was the distant realization that she’d been awake for almost three days straight.

  The Sorev Ael woke them barely a handful of hours later and forced them into their saddles again, refusing to let either of them help him retie Samson, who still had not re-woken since the Fort. Before they left, he pulled AmyQuinn aside and spoke to her in a quiet voice.

  “Do you feel it?”

  Reeling from lack of sleep and general disorientation, it took her a second to realize he had asked a question to which she was expected to respond. His eyes had heavy shadows under them, and the lines around his mouth and across his forehead were more deeply etched than she had ever seen them. But his gaze still held that the same blazing power that it always did.

  “What do you mean?” she asked, trying to pull the disparate parts of her mind together and collect her thoughts into a coherent whole. “Feel – the wind?”

  “No” he said impatiently, shrugging against the mentioned breeze as though it were an impudent passer-by disrupting his thoughts. “Not the wind. The need – do you feel it?”

  She opened her mouth to say she didn’t know what he meant, but just then, as if the word had provoked the thought, she realized that she did feel it. It was the same sensation she’d felt when in the Citadel, the same need to go north, except now it was pulling her south. It was like a sound just on the edge of hearing, a vibration almost, that struck her and made her ring like a tuning fork.

  She looked south, the way they were going, past the rolling hills carpeted in waves of green. Spring was coming now in earnest as the cold of winter and the heavy rains off the ocean eased. There was something south, something that pulled her…

  “Something’s happening in Caelron,” she said, not knowing how she knew. She pulled her gaze away and looked back at Valinor, who nodded slowly. Her thoughts suddenly fell into place and her mind raced forward.

  “The Black Ships,” she said. “If the man in the bone mask is following us, then they’re not trying to conceal themselves anymore. And you said that when the winter ended and spring came – ”

  The grim look on his face was confirmation enough for her.

  “The need, though,” she continued hurriedly, “the feeling – we wouldn’t have it if there was nothing we could do, would we?”

  He shook his head, and the fear that had existed around the edges of these thoughts broke free and encompassed her entirely. Any last vestiges of sleep were pushed away as she realized what might be happening at this very moment.

  “I’m afraid we might already be too late,” Valinor said. “But the feeling – you’re right. It goes away when there’s no hope left. So we run – we outdistance the thanomancer, this Kull, and we make it Var Athel with the boy. There is a chance that somehow we will fulfill the need without even knowing that we’re doing it.”

  “But if the Black Ships attack, how will it help to get to Var Athel?”

  “I don’t know,” he said. “But it is the only thing I can think to do.”

  He turned away, hurried to grab up the reins of the Samson’s horse, and then they were all speeding down the road once more.

  Towns and villages flashed by as they continued south on the King’s Road, and with every step they took, the sense of need continued to pound in AmyQuinn’s head. Now that Valinor had alerted her to it, it all she could think of. She felt like a piece of metal being pulled by a magnet, and it gave her the strength she needed to stay awake through that day and to badger Wren into keeping up with them.

  Still though, with all their speed, it was not enough.

  “He’s on our tail,” Valinor said, looking north when they stopped that night.

  They were weary beyond belief. AmyQuinn had not known it was possible to be so tired, and even Wren, who had known his fair share of deprivation, was having trouble keeping up with the iron-willed determination of the Sorev Ael. They had stopped by the side of the road again to rest – they would not sleep, AmyQuinn was sure, not tonight. At this speed, they would reach Var Athel soon, but it was still days away, and they needed to keep out of their pursuer’s grasp.

  She grabbed her staff and felt warmth flow through her, pushing back some of her fatigue. She leaned on it heavily as she tried to walk some of the stiffness out of her legs, but it was no use. She’d lost feeling in the lower half of her body hours ago, and pins and needles seemed to be the only thing she could feel even now that she had dismounted.

  Samson stirred in his sleep and
let out a pained moan.

  Immediately, Valinor went to him, AmyQuinn hot on his heels; it was the first time in hours the Islander had stirred. Valinor checked the bandages and AmyQuinn saw that the blood had begun to seep again, oozing out of his skin.

  “I thought I healed him,” she said, worried. “Did I only make it worse?”

  “The wound is gone, that much is clear, but Eryn-Ra blood is tricky,” Valinor said, hovering his right hand over the side of the unconscious form, careful not to make contact. “You may have healed the wound but kept some of the blood inside him. The rest may be coming out now – perhaps that will be enough to save him. I do not know. Either way, I think you did the only thing you could do – you contained it.”

  “I did?”

  “Yes. The Words you used could be construed to mean that.”

  “Construed?”

  “Yes – you didn’t heal him, but you helped him deal with it.”

  “Will it – will that help him?”

  “It gives him a chance,” Valinor said. He reached for the straps tying the young man to the horse and carefully but quickly undid them. He slid Samson off the horse and onto the ground. The horse was breathing heavily, and AmyQuinn realized with alarm that she could see ribs through the creature’s skin.

  “Master,” she said, startled.

  “I know,” he said. “The spell affected them more than us – much more. The poor creatures may not last the journey, but we must keep moving. I would save them if I could, but we have no other choice.”

  He muttered something over Samson’s form, but nothing changed except that he stopped stirring and seemed to fall more deeply asleep. The Sorev Ael quickly pulled him up and slid him back into place, handling the body with surprising ease despite the young man’s size, and minutes later they were off.

  They continued at their suicidal pace, but they never outdistanced their pursuit. They could not see them, but Valinor insisted they were close and pulling closer, and AmyQuinn felt it too. It was like coming down with a cold: at first it was a slight imbalance, as though she were a step behind in everything she did, but then her eyes began to water, and then came phantom chills and even waves of sickness that raced over her and almost had her retching over the side of her horse.

  It hit Wren even harder than it hit her, and he was violently sick on more than one occasion. Between him and Samson, they were forced to slow even further. They stopped again at night to get another few hours of sleep, but this time when they woke even Valinor looked as though he was ready to simply keel over.

  The trip became nothing more than a haze of black and white – nights and days that passed before their eyes as they counted down the miles until they would see the shining white walls of Var Athel. To gain extra speed, they ate in their saddles, and they rested only when they could not physically take another step. They left the King’s Road as they drew closer to Aginor in an effort to lose themselves down back paths and dirt trails that sped them through the countryside, but still they were followed. Once they heard behind them the clash of arms, far off in the distance, and AmyQuinn knew that the force led by the man in the bone mask had been attacked or held up by a King’s Guard garrison, and she hoped against hope that this would be what stopped them – that the man in the bone mask would lose too many men, or that he would encounter another Sorev Ael that might hold him back just long enough…

  But such luck was not theirs. When they were no more than a day from Var Athel, AmyQuinn’s horse fell out from underneath her.

  She had just enough warning to throw herself free and so avoid being crushed, but when she came again to her feet, even her panicked heart beating in a sluggish way, she saw immediately that there was nothing she could do for the fallen beast: yellow foam was falling from its open mouth, flecked with red, and though its sides heaved to pull in breath, it was clear that there was no hope for it.

  She felt a rush of despair and terrible sorrow for the horse itself as it stared at her with eyes that were already glassing over. What could she do?

  “Onto the horse with the boy,” Valinor said gruffly, trying and failing to mask the growing fatigue in his voice. “Ride with him.”

  AmyQuinn mounted behind Wren, who had regained enough consciousness now that he was able to at least steer the horse himself, and they set off again, leaving the dying creature behind. They left the last of the already patchy forest and began to ride through grain fields. She realized dimly that they were officially in Aginor, the province just across the bay from Caelron.

  We’re close, she thought. We’re so close. Just a little farther. Just…

  But the horses could not make it.

  Samson’s was the next to drop, and Wren’s refused to go another step after they already stopped. Valinor threw himself off his own mount and cut loose the straps holding their provisions to the saddles, not even willing to waste the time it would take to untie them.

  “Boy!” he called to Wren, who shuffled forward. “Take these.”

  He threw a few of the bags to Wren, who dropped them and then bent hurriedly to pick up what he could, as AmyQuinn and Valinor went for Samson.

  Together they threw their weight under the boy and lifted him to their shoulders. He woke but only just: his eyes tried and failed to pull back and allow him sight, and his legs moved, helping the smallest bit to keep him on his feet, but that was all. She wondered for a minute why Valinor did not cast a spell to lift his weight and cause him to follow them, or why he did not lessen the burden and make him easier to carry – but then she saw the slump in the Sorev Ael’s shoulders, saw the deep shadows beneath his eyes and the set line of his jaw, and realized that even he was barely holding on.

  They made their way up the side of the final hill, and crested it.

  Maiden’s Bay lay spread out before them, shining like a jewel in the falling light of day. Var Athel, white and towering, stood firm and strong on the northern short, and opposite it, on the head on the Peninsula, lay the city of Caelron, surrounded by the Black Ships of the Varanathi.

 
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