“Saren and Nehru be damned,” cried Goren, as he dove through the snow towards the wood line of the forest. The riders were closing quickly, even with the snow to slow the horses, but his own feet weren’t as light in the high drifts as he had hoped. “Finally, the suffering end you deserve,” he said to no one. “Payback is a bitch, isn’t it?”
Bark splintered on the tree next to him, a quarrel burying its head into the wood. “Why in the name of Ol did I burn the bow?” Strangely, he answered himself: “Because it wasn’t yours, usurper.”
In the woods, Goren knew the snow would be lighter. He had hunted here many times, in his youth as well as recently, and he knew the paths that would be hard to follow on a horse. There were times when he came hunting on his own, and he had missed the aelo with his first arrow. They aren’t fierce animals, but when they’re attacked, they know how to hurt the men that hunt them down.
Another bolt, landing quietly and dangerously close in the snow, brought him out of these thoughts, and he hurried down a little used path towards a cabin his family had used for years. There would be weapons there, perhaps, and at least a place to defend himself from his attackers. He didn’t know who these men were, or why they were chasing him down, and he didn’t much care. All he cared about was staying alive. “Do you really think you deserve to live,” he asked himself, “after you murdered your father in cold blood? Let the hand that serves the poison be cut off.”
Running through the woods, the horses losing ground slowly, he toppled over a mound of snow into a bank he hadn’t remembered. The horses were too far behind to have seen him fall – he was safe, for the moment. He rested.
“Haven’t spent much time in the winter woods, have you?” Goren whirled to see another rider, wearing the same white armor of his followers. “Just because you’re out of sight, doesn’t mean we can’t follow your trail.” The man released his blade from its scabbard with the sharp, crisp scratch of steel on steel. Goren stood up, waist-deep in the snow covered gully, and turned to flee. Behind him stood three more riders, swords drawn and dismounted from their steeds, staring down at him from the bank of the pit.
“Now you’ll meet the suffering end you deserve,” Goren said. The four were mildly amused, as the leader walked his horse closer to Winston.
“I rather think you’re wrong,” the leader replied, pulling his blade back to swing.
“No, wait! I didn’t mean-” Blackness engulfed Goren as he landed in the cold, soft snow.
“He burned the bow.” Marcus stared silently, sadly, at the remains of a small fire someone had reported seeing under the dock at the south ford, two days past. Marcus had known who it was, and took his time investigating. The curved wood was charred beyond definite description, but Marcus knew no rotted plank would take that shape, and the blackened remains of six arrow heads were only just below the surface of the soot, when he scraped through it with his knife. “What idiocy has taken the boy? Bad enough I had to hit him… never had to take steps with Goren before… couldn’t stop babbling… squirmin’ mess, that boy is…”
Marcus mounted his horse once more, noting the lack of tracks anywhere near the area. No one fords the Laraka in the winter, and the ripping wind covered well any traces Goren had left behind. Riding the rest of his nightly rounds, he thought he should have gone with Goren, but decided against it. “Who’d be left to take care of Kald’s home, with Ne’on running the place? And besides, I’d probably have to kill the men following me, instead of just avoiding their opportunities. Ne’on needs a lesson in subtilty…”
As the Castellan of Gateway trotted his horse away from the area, three dark figures crawled slowly over the ridge behind him, contrasting the white landscape with their black clothes and arms. They had been following him for the past day and a half. They had no idea that he had been keeping track of them, as well.
Soft warmth, in the form of bear skins and female flesh, awoke Goren from his fevered haze. He had been sick with the Red Skull, his benefactors told him, and they were glad he was alive. Looking around him, he saw he was in a tent some twenty feet square, with about ten other men and women. He was also in chains, as were the others.
“Where am I?” he asked of the woman looking down at him. He quickly thought of his clothes and checked to see if he was decent. He was; but not in the clothes with which he had left Gateway.
As if sensing his thoughts, the woman – or girl, for she couldn’t be older than 17 summers – blushed shyly, and began to answer, when she was interrupted by another voice.
“Hell,” it stated plainly, in a tone that was at once ancient and young, rough and gentle. Goren looked to see a woman of not more than five heads tall, with the eyes of an angel lined with more years than she had lived. “You can go, now, Vercona; the man appears to be well. Although I’d take it easy from now on, if I were you.” This last was directed at Goren.
“I’m not dead, and I can think of worse places to awaken than in the presence of beautiful women, so I think you might be mistaken.” Goren looked around. The general populace didn’t think the jest was very funny, and the woman wasn’t smiling much, either.
“Then perhaps you should stay here: women come and go every day, and the food isn’t half bad. You have to pay dearly for it, though; or you will, as soon as you’ve been sold.” With a cold stare, she added. “If you decide to live through the next two weeks, I’ll be in the corner. Happy attitudes and light jokes aren’t going to do you very much good.”
Goren decided he didn’t like this woman.
A white clothed figure, sitting tall in the saddle, rode his pale horse through the snow covered woods 100 leagues North West of Magnus. His mount’s light, muffled hoofs echoed softly through the nearby trees causing small clouds of billowy white snow to fall gently to the cottony masses below. Pausing briefly, he reached down to his left boot, covered with the grey-white fur of winter wolves, and adjusted his stirrup. The howling wind passing through the trees blew open his light blue cloak, revealing his heavy suede protective vest beneath, and the short cropped blonde hair around the fair complexion and pale blue eyes common to most northerners. Pulling the cloak securely around his body, he huddled against the sharp wind biting through his too-thin clothing, and muttered a prayer to Stevene as he spurred his horse into a walk.
“Stevene, keep her safe and whole, let her not feel the cold sting of winter, and may the Communers find more need for her in this life than myself.”
A light figure almost seemed to blend into the gentle snow of the plains as it emerged from the northern edge of the woods less than fifty leagues from Gateway Keep.
“Fine,” he said, turning from the exit of the tent and sitting down on a red silk pillow. The pillow was soft, but it did little to comfort him from the frustration at his failure, especially with everyone in the tent staring at him with the mixed feelings of pessimistic knowledge and disappointment.
“Goren,” the angelic voice sighed, and he felt a firm hand grasp his shoulder, “I’ve tried everything already. You know that. You are feeling panic, now, and you have to let it go.” Rho looked to the opening of the tent. “It’s not strong magic, but it’s enough.”
“I hate magic,” he muttered, looking around him at the other trapped souls. “Even more, I hate being confined!” He stood up again, and began walking toward the flaps. “I’m going to break this damn force if I have to spend the rest of my life doing it.”
Rho grabbed him and spun him around. “You may well do that. That field doesn’t wear down. It’s there. Now sit down, and calm down, or I’ll knock you down.” She was tired of this stubborn man who wouldn’t listen. She was tired of his ranting and raving. She was tired of his childish tirades. She didn’t understand how a man could seem so rational, and act so immature. And, most of all, she was tired of being locked up, too. His words had struck a chord in her, but she wasn’t going to allow them to disturb her thinking.
Goren was tired, too. This woman had been demanding since the moment he met her. Who did she think she was, treating him like this? He was the Keeper of Gateway. He was the nephew of a respected, if minor, House of Magnus. And, she was a woman.
“Get out of my way,” he said, teeth clenched.
“Sit down,” she said coolly.
He reached to move her. There was a blur of movement, the blunt sound of flesh hitting flesh, a gasp of air, and Goren flew several feet backward, landing not too softly on a pile of silk and pillows. Goren lay doubled over, his breath short and infrequent.
“Don’t come to me again unless you’re in the mood to take orders.”
Hanlar moved his large bulk back into the trees, a narrow beam of energy burning a thin branch off the tree beside him. The trees were safe, he thought, just out of their distance. His commanding officer looked at him dazedly from behind the large boulder he was using for cover. They all looked at him, asking how they were expected to succeed where a man his size had failed. The cold winter snow mixed in with the dirt they were forced to sleep in, covering them all with a muddy complexion. They had quarreled on the way here, the poor travelling conditions and their bad temperaments mixing to aggravate their situation. Some of them had broken bones from fights, cuts where the fights had gotten out of control. Two of them were asked to leave the group. Ne’on would have to deal with them, if they lived to make it back.
“Why didn’t you keep going?” The commander looked desperate. He was only 21 years old, and most of his troops had more experience than he. Experience in what, Hanlar wondered. Most of these “troops”, as Ne’on called his Black Arm, were cut-throats and thieves, muggers, men who hadn’t worked an honest day in their lives, unless it was to stake out a prospective target.
Their commanding officer was a man known in the Keep and the surrounding area. It had been a politically wise choice for Ne’on to put him in charge. It had been a tactically stupid move. He didn’t want the position. He had joined the Arm for the sake of making some extra money for his family. Ne’on knew this, and asked if he would like to make even more. Needing it, he jumped at the chance. He hadn’t known what he was doing.
“Keep goin’?” Hanlar looked at his captain in amazement. “Are ye crazed, boy? Them wizards jist took out all me men, an’ me near wi’ ‘em. ‘Ow would you like to be chargin’ out there, eh?”
“If I weren’t the commanding officer, and in charge of bringing this damn precious stone back, I would be out there!” Damn this corporal, thought sergeant Howen, he shouldn’t dare speak to me that way. As soon as this is over, I will discipline him.
“Well, then, mister commandin’ officer,” Hanlar’s face wrinkled with the sarcasm, “maybe you’d best be findin’ a way tha’ what’s left of this troop kin git along into this devil’s hole wi’ out yuir help, eh?”
“I’m working on it, corporal.” The sergeant stared back at the cave entrance, wondering how he could fight the cold, his men, and the magicians holding Ne’on’s stone, and still stay alive in the process. “I’m working on it.”
Marcus glanced behind him slowly, letting the men following him know he was turning, and giving them time to hide themselves. In the time it took for them to get out of his field of vision – one had jumped behind the rain barrel, he noted by the barrel’s slight movement, and the other had stepped into the River Snake’s Den – he was able to duck down the alley to the side before they could see where he had gone. It shouldn’t take them long to figure it out, he thought, glancing at the snow on the ground.
Looking down the alley, he noticed the back door to the fabric store, and made his way towards it. He wasn’t sure if these men were still Ne’on’s guard, or some of the ruffians the winter weather, and Ne’on’s new policies, had attracted to Gateway. Before he could get to the door, he heard their muffled footfalls behind him. He turned, and saw the two men following him. They weren’t dressed like men of the Arm, being clad mostly in winter hides and light cloaks. They paused, noting the exposed position in which both parties stood.
“You’re either thinking you should run away now,” Marcus said to them, unclipping his sword belt, “while you’re still out of the dungeons…” Marcus drew his sword slowly, letting it’s scrape against the scabbard be heard quite plainly by the two men. “..or that it’s time to draw your weapons, and face this keep’s Castellan with steel.” Pulling the cloak off his shoulders, he twirled it around his left forearm and hand, resulting in an effective defensive weapon against two opponents. “Me… I’ve already made my decision.”
The two men paused, looking at each other doubtfully. They’re judging each other’s value, Marcus thought. After two seconds, they turned and ran. The Castellan let them go.
“They’re getting brave,” he mused. “Sooner or later, if those were Ne’on’s men, they’re going to have to do something.”
The tent was wrapped in a silence broken only by the sounds of deep slumber, and a body navigating across the pillows and sleeping forms. He crept closer in the darkness, making little noise and disturbing no one despite the sparse light cast by the hanging oil lamp. He didn’t need to see where she lay sleeping; he knew as if by instinct. As he drew closer to her, he reached his hand to her, and gently touched her.
“Rho,” he whispered, not intending to wake her if she was truly asleep.
“What is it, Goren,” she replied. Her voice was clear and smooth – she had been awake for some time.
“I, uh…” He wasn’t expecting her to be awake. It would have been much easier if she was actually asleep. He knew he had intended to say something to her, on his way over, but now he fumbled for the words. He had a respect for her which he felt for few people. She had been able to knock him across the room. And, of course, she was beautiful. “I just wanted… I was stubborn… What I’m trying to say-”
“Goren, forget it.” Rho turned to her left side, resting her head up on her left hand. She looked at him seriously, gauging him, determining his value at what she had planned. She decided. “Can you fight? I mean, not hand to hand, but with weapons?”
“No, Goren, not everyone can. And I don’t mean just carry them and know how to hold them – any mother’s son can do that. I mean, if it comes down to it, could I count on your sword arm?”
Goren smiled. “No.” Rho gave him a dissapointed look, but he stopped her before she could reply. “You’d get your head chopped off, if you had to rely on my sword arm. But, give me a bow and I can show you some magic.” He tried not to sound too proud of his next statement, but he wanted to impress her. “I won the Keep’s Silver Arrow the last five years in a row. Of course, Marcus and my father weren’t competing, but…” At the thought of his father, he became quiet and sober. For the first time in over a fortnight, he remembered his father laying on the ground, twisted in pain. Rho’s voice brought him back.
“Good,” she said. “Gather all the clothing you can, we’re leaving here tonight.” Throwing off the blankets she was resting under, she stood up fully clothed, and removed a bundle from beneath her pillows. Goren ran for his own possessions, waking several people in the process as he stumbled over their sleeping forms.
A flickering yellow light began emanating from outside the tent near Rho’s bed. It grew brighter, turned orange, and darkened. Suddenly, the tent material peeled away under the heat of the red-orange flames. The inhabitants of the tent were in chaos, shouting their surprise and fear, as a white-clad warrior entered the tent.
“Come on!” Rho called, grabbing the bundle and running through the opening. Goren ran close behind, clasping a bundle of his own close to his chest.
Sorya waited in the gathered silence, her brothers and sisters of the order huddling about the rocky entrance to their habitat. Her light green robe, signifying her status as Leaf, stood out among the browns and greys – the Branches and Barks – of the rest of the group. The cold winter wind did not reach into the cave, whose enchanted opening permitted only gentle breezes to pass through. Sorya lowered her blonde-capped head and rubbed the short bristles of her hair with her left hand… for luck, she smiled. Glancing up, her keen brown eyes sensed something in the distance. Her jaw set.
“Prepare,” Sorya’s soft, raspy voice called out.
“No, wait…” Haren, one of the Barks, called. “I don’t think it’s an offensive attack. Not a direct one…”
Haren was the sensitive of the group. He could feel things of this nature, sometimes, but Sorya wanted to be sure. Any mistake, and the Crystal might be forfeit. No one was going to take it while she was acting leader of the Nar-Enthruen. “Explain,” she commanded.
“It’s movement, that’s all. Not necessarily an attack, but… part of one.”
“Where to?” He was nervous, she noted. So was she. These men, from out of no where, had staged an attack on the Guild. Normal men, without even a magician to help them discover the illusion cast over the cave’s entrance. Another effect of the Crystal, she noted. She wondered if it was losing its power.
“I can’t say… around… I don’t know.” He dropped his head, shamefully, wishing he could have told the group. It would have been a great deal of help. “Look!”
In front of the cave, about thirty yards away, stood a large man, looking battered and tired from the siege. The leader of the last group that had attacked the cave, Sorya noted. As he stepped forward, he drew his sword, intending to attack. Easily defeated, she thought.
“Karin,” she called, and the Bark stepped out of the cave to meet him. The worst aspect of the Crystal, Sorya thought, was that no magic within fifty feet of it was functional, unless it was a powerful conglomeration of magi, and that only happened during a Draining.
Karin stepped out of the cave, and greeted her combatant with a nod. She expected to have little time to cast her spell before he swung his great sword in her direction – her first spell would have to be a protective one. She called on the magic, feeling it enter her, shaping its form about her.
Sharp pain, in the form of an arrow, entered her side. A warmth spread about her left hip, and she could feel wetness running down her legs. The energy she was summoning began slipping away, she could feel the spell dissipating. Concentrate, damnit, she thought, focusing her mind once again.
A new warmth, pleasurable, gathered at her side, and she glanced over to see Haren sitting next to her, his hands glowing a light blue as they touched her wound, the arrow easing out slowly and painlessly. Another shaft flew through the air, striking the ground next to her. She knew she had to finish the spell, but there were so many distractions.
Haren, run back inside,she thought. He was risking his life to save hers; there was no way he could have covered himself with a protective spell before he began healing her. Another idea occurred to her, and she began expanding the spell to include him. It would take only a moment longer…
Hanlar’s long sword came down on her shoulder blade with a note of finality, splitting her torso half way. Karin cried faintly, and slumped onto the magus sitting next to her. Haren looked up, surprised, and shouted something incomprehensible to Hanlar, and Hanlar was sent sprawling backward, a gash opening in his chest. Two more arrows were fired, and these hit their mark. Haren slumped forward over the body of his dead friend.
“Gods, it worked!” Sergeant Howen ran forward, his troops staring at him in wonder. “Corporal, get up here, we’ve got a man down, and I’m not losing any more men. McCullen! Braddock! Hold your positions! If another one of those robed freaks comes out of that cave, I want it looking like my grandmother’s pin cushion!”
The sudden victory where defeat had seemed so imminent struck the men dumb, but they followed the new strength they saw in their leader. They didn’t like him, they had thought he was weak, but he showed them that a good plan could go a long way. As one of the men began bandaging Hanlar, Hanlar looked up at his commander, twisted his craggy face into an exaggerated wink of his left eye, and slumped back down.
“Will he be alright, corporal?” Howen was worried. Out of all the men he had the dubious pleasure to lead, this man was his favorite. He wasn’t particularly nice to the sergeant, but he treated him fairly, and gave him a chance when most of the troops would not have.
“‘E’ll be fine, comman’er. Jist a bit o’ a scrape… ‘e’s ‘ad worse, I can tell you that.” The corporal continued wrapping the bandage around Hanlar’s newly exposed chest, the blood already beginning to coagulate.
“Well, just make sure that wound is kept clean. And keep him warm, I’m not losing anyone for any reason.” Howen turned to the rest of his gathered troop. “The rest of you, form ranks, two rows, bows in the back, swords up front. We’re going into that cave and bring out that bloody stone.”
“Sorya, they’re coming! How are we going to stop them?” The young Bark, new to magic itself let alone battle, cried desperately to Sorya. They all look desperate, she thought. “They killed Karin and Haren, Sorya. How can we stop their arrows if we can’t even cast any spells? There’s only twelve of us left!”
Twelve of us and twenty of them, Sorya thought, looking at the massed robes around her. Twelve hysterical, panicking beginners, against twenty trained men. She thought about the cave, their advantages, what few weapons they had, and the men who were coming towards the entrance. She began to feel the uneasy turning in her stomach which precluded her own panic, and had to force herself not to lose control. If she lost command of herself, the entire group would be cut down like lambs for the slaughter. Then she thought of a chance.
“Twelve will be enough,” she announced to the robed figures around her. “They can’t fire their arrows into the illusion covering the cave, and the few magical traps on the path should slow them down a bit. Falen, take two men and go to the chamber. I want you to bring the Crystal up here.”
Her words echoed off the walls, taking time to sink into the minds of the magi around her. Falen rose, picked two Barks nearest him, and left. The others still looked at her, wondering. They didn’t understand.
“You all know the Crystal can be used to drain latent ability from… incompetent… students. Well, there’s another function of the Crystal that isn’t discussed very often-”
A scream filled the cavern as a man crumbled to the ground outside the cave. About twenty feet from the entrance, the center man in the front line grasped at where his left leg used to be, a small, fiery explosion burning it completely from his hip. The advancing men halted, looking about them carefully. Someone hesitantly stepped up to help the now unconscious soldier whose wound – mercifully – had cauterized with the injury. A few others began to back away, until a yell from their commanding officer stopped them. Sorya wished that he had been the one to suffer the injury – the entire assault might have been halted right there.
“As I was saying, there is another function.” Falen and the two Barks arrived with the large stone, its mass being carried by the three of them between two large, wooden poles. The purple, oblong stone pulsed slightly, slowly, in the presence of the magi. “That function is to drain life.”
There was a subtle change in the expressions of the massed magicians; the change from confused wonder to fearful awe. One of them spoke the thoughts of all the young, inexperienced magi, “We can’t manage the Crystal.. it’s too powerful… there’s not many of us here…”
The time they had left was drawing short. The men had begun advancing, again, this time prodding the ground in front of them with spears, branches, anything they could find to trigger the traps without being caught in them. They would be entering the cave in another minute, and then the slaughter would begin. Sorya realized there was a second time constraint: the Crystal was pulsing slightly faster, a little brighter, it’s dweomer causing it to drink the plentiful magic potential gathered in the room so close to it. The incantation must begin immediately.
“I tell you, twelve will be enough! Am I not a Leaf of the Nar- Enthruen? Do I not know of what I speak? Or would you wait for the soldiers to cut you to pieces? Look outside, and tell me we are still not enough to use the Crystal.” The magi glanced about themselves, saw the first man coming near to entering the cave, and quickly formed a circle around the Crystal. Sorya stepped into her place, and began the spell.
“Are we sure this is the exact entrance?” The corporal next to Howen looked at him with the question. The entrance was difficult to detect, at best, with the illusion cast over the cave. It was only Ne’on’s instructions that had allowed them to find the cave in the first place. The closer you got to it, somehow, the more defined the illusion appeared.
“I’m sure, damnit, now let’s get in there. We don’t know what else they might have planned for us, and we’re running low on man power.” He yelled loudly to his men to pick up their spirits, “Let’s go, men! Give these demon wizards a piece of steel to take with them to Risseer!”
As they passed through the illusion, they could see the cave entirely, including the circle of magi around a huge, purple stone. They charged, fearing the possible attack by the conclave, but no wizards turned to meet their steel. Suddenly, a man screamed out in pain, and dropped to the ground. Then, another man fell, and another, writhing in agony for a moment, and laying still.
“Magic!” cried one of the men. And the charge stopped yet again. The bowmen worked their way forward and nocked their arrows.
“Aim, and fire at will,” Howen commanded, and the arrows flew out, striking their targets.
A feeling of sickness came over Howen; his insides started turning, and a pain crawled up his left arm, working towards his heart.
“Get the green-robed one,” he gasped, clutching at his chest. Several other men also stopped their attack, clutching at their chests. One fell to the ground, dead.
More arrows flew through the air, some striking their targets, most missing completely. There were only six more standing, damnit, Howen thought. And thirteen of us. The odds are still in our favor. Blackness closed in around his vision, his heart rate jumping faster. The green robe called something out, and another man collapsed behind him. Still, he fought the desire to give up, to let the life spill out of him; he had something to live for, a job to finish, a family to support.
Another magus felt the bite of an arrow and the men of the Arm closed with their enemy. Swords were drawn, steel bit into cloth, and screams reached Howen’s ears as he felt Celine’s tranquil pull. Another cry, the sound of rusted metal hitting stone, feet moving around him. Someone gasped for air.
Air began making its way into his own lungs. His heart beat slowly, steadily. His vision cleared, and when he focussed, he saw several silhouettes leaning over him.
“Is he dead?” one asked.
Then he heard a familiar voice – a voice he was growing to love – the voice of Hanlar. “He’s lookin’ you square in the face, lad, and ye think he’s dead?” Hands reached out to grasp him, and pull him up, and he saw the green robed magus laying in a pool of blood by the stone, Hanlar’s own sword sticking out of the woman’s chest like a monument. Nehru forgive us, he thought, we were fighting women.
“We’ll take some time ‘ere, lads, to rest. We’ll not be goin’ any- where, for a scant bit ‘o time.”