Teran glared angrily down at the open gate of Dargon. Two months wasted on a wild goose chase and he was finally back where he started. The trail was probably cold by now; Eliowy wouldn’t be foolish enough to stay in the city and that left Teran further behind her than he’d been the entire chase.
He’d spend a fruitless two months searching for his charge up and down the road to Tench on the chance advice of a person on the street. The information–that the boy had seen someone answering Eliowy’s description leaving by the main gate and heading towards Tench–had been completely wrong and Teran strongly suspected that it had been a plant, although where Eliowy had gotten the bribe money and the time to talk to the boy was a mystery.
Dusk was deepening into night, so Teran kicked his horse into a trot so he could make it into the city before the gates closed. While Dargon did have a smaller, secondary entrance that remained accessible though the night, the graveyard watch asked too many questions for Teran’s comfort.
The gate loomed in the road and Teran urged his mount to a faster gait, eager to be off the road, it only for one night. He deserved a warm bed and good food before taking up his search again.
As he drew closer, Teran could make out a figure on horseback, riding quickly down the main street, cloak streaming behind. The gate guards stepped hurriedly aside as the rider charged through the gates. Teran pulled the bay off the road. Horse and rider plunged past, and Teran caught a glimpse of bright auburn hair in the last of the light.
Swallowing a shout, he pulled the bay around and sent him charging after.
`This is getting to be a habit,’ thought Eliowy in annoyance as she charged over the wet sands and towards the stairs leading up to Liriss’ private pier. Behind her the sounds of combat rose soft as a whisper over the beat of the rising surf. The guards who dragged her here were being occupied by a lone man, who, for no reason that Eliowy could see, had come to her rescue.
One of the guards was currently having a drink of seawater and the other two were learning the finer points of losing a sword fight. In an unoccupied corner of her mind, Eliowy was almost sorry that she couldn’t stay and help get rid of Liriss’ minions, but getting out of Dargon was much more important right now. She’d openly defied Liriss and her life wasn’t worth the time it would take for him to kill her any more.
She had until dawn; Liriss shouldn’t learn of her escape until then.
The stairs creaked loudly above the beat of the waves and the soft, tinkling clash of bladework. Slick with spray, the banister imparted a splinter to Eliowy as she tried to keep her balance in her hurried charge. Her arrival at the top of the stairs was ungraceful; she tripped on the topmost stair while looking back to see about pursuit.
Loud footsteps on the pier sent Eliowy scrambling for the dubious cover of a small pile of shipping crates.
A man, clad in chainmail, hurried past and down the stairs without sparing a glance to Eliowy’s hiding place. Shouts echoed up the steep walk, followed by more of the tinny sounds of steel on steel.
Creeping to the edge of the stairs, Eliowy could just see the pier guard engaging her rescuer in the gathering gloom. There was no sign of Liriss’ thugs. The fight entered the water and Eliowy drew back from her vantage point. In a few short minutes the fight would be over and by then she’d have to be well away. Better start running.
The question was, where to go. Liriss’ connections within the city were so extensive that there was no place she could hide from him for long. Going to Tench was too obvious…hiking along the beach might be an idea… She slipped away from the boxes, mind working furiously on coming up with escape route that might be successful against a powerful mounted enemy.
A soft, disgruntled whinny drew Eliowy to the one thing that had kept her in Dargon for so long. A horse lipped idley at the worn railing. For the first time since arriving in Dargon Eliowy felt in charge of her situation.
`A quick stop at the house to get my stuff and I can be out of the city and Liriss’ reach by dawn,’ she thought as she pushed herself to her feet and advanced towards the animal.
A faded blue horse blanket was secured to its back by a well worn saddle. Empty saddlebags hung on either side of the horse’s rump and a crossbow with a quiver of quarrels dangled from a snaffle on the right side.
“Good horse,” said Eliowy softly, patting the horse’s neck. Gratified by the attention, the animal nuzzled the top of the girl’s head. Beneath them, under the pier, the sounds of combat could no longer be heard. “Good boy. I’m really sorry, but I need you more than your owner does, so be cooperative…”
Eliowy swung into the saddle and with a clatter sent the animal careening down the pier.
Dust was churned up and illuminated by the passing street lanterns and the last shreds of dusk sunlight. Buildings flashed past as Eliowy guided her mount through the main streets that were less familiar to her than Dargon’s back pathways and alleys. Few people were abroad, even this early in the evening. The gang wars kept people indoors as sunset drew near because in the dark, it didn’t matter whose side you were on.
Fear made her tense and she gripped the leather reins in sweaty hands as she urged the horse into a full trot, wanting to be gone as quickly as possible.
The brightly lit front and balcony of the house where Eliowy had been staying came into view. Pulling the horse to a stop beneath a sign depicting a blonde woman holding a sheet to her breast, she flung herself out of the saddle and hurried up the main steps.
Warm colors decorated the main room where half a dozen women lounged on couches and chairs. Pastel drapes and exotic tapestries covered the walls and candles brightened the room. A welcoming chorus followed the girl up the main staircase.
Eliowy had not had much contact with the denizens of the house she was staying in. She was usually out on the streets when they had free time and she’d been advised by the proprietress not to bother the women in the evening. Eliowy usually spent her nights practicing sword work in her room, limiting her contact with the women to quick `hello’s, `goodbye’s and compliments on some particularly pretty piece of frippery. She knew that her housemates were whores, but pretended not to notice and for their part, the prostitutes never asked why the girl didn’t share their profession when she obviously lived in the house.
Liriss had known that she wasn’t practicing prostitution to provide him with his required fee, but said nothing, assuming that it would only be a matter of time before the girl couldn’t make enough picking pockets to pay him and resorted to the better paying profession of lady for hire.
Eliowy’s room was at the end of the hall on the second floor and the heavy door swung partially shut as she ducked into its dubious sanctuary. Like the rest of the house, the room was lavishly decorated. Tapestries hung on the walls and a deep, double doored window with a window seat let in moonlight across from the main entrance. A large four poster bed dominated the left hand wall and a wooden wardrobe covered the right. Thick rugs hid the floor. Light was provided by a pair of lanterns placed on either side of the bed’s headboard.
The house’s only servant always seemed to have them lit before Eliowy returned from her day on the streets and today was no exception. Warm yellow light pooled across the floor in a steady stream.
Eliowy headed for the wardrobe first. Pulling open the doors, she grabbed her worn pack from the cupbord’s bottom. From pegs she pulled her old travel clothes and threw them on the bed, followed by the new pieces that Liriss purchased for her. They might remind her of his foulness, but they’d keep her warm during her trek away from Dargon. Winter was just around the corner and leaving now as a sure way to get caught in the first autumn storms.
After the last piece of clothing was pulled from the wardrobe, Eliowy went to the bed. From underneath the wooden frame she pulled out her sword and scabbard and flung it on top of her clothes. Digging a little yielded her harp.
Well worn goldenwood glowed in the light and the strings, made of costly spun wire, glinted like bits of moonfire.
Sadly, Eliowy stood and wrapped the instrument in her old cloak, placing it deep in the bottom of the pack. She’d had to sell the harp’s case months ago for a little bit of coin that fed her for less than a week; true value of the case should have put her up in the best hotel for a month, but desperation and hunger led her to accept the first reasonable offer she came across. Guilt was still fresh and Eliowy was glad that her mother wasn’t alive to hear her pitiful excuses.
Clothes were piled on top of the instrument to give it added protection. She would detune the strings as soon as she was clear of the city to keep them from snapping in the cold; the cloak wouldn’t be enough to protect it once full winter set in. She pulled the drawstrings of the pack tightly shut then buckled on her sword belt and spare dagger.
The sword itself was drawn a second later at the sound of the door shutting completely.
“Tilden!” Eliowy lowered the sword point at the sight of the hollow eyed ex-scout. “I told you to leave me alone.”
“You’re not usually this late,” commented Tilden, leaning against the door and surreptitiously engaging the lock. “And you rode in from the direction of the docks. What happened?”
“Liriss tried to kill me,” said Eliowy, surprised at how easily the words came out. And how willing she was to talk about it. The shock of nearly fulfilling the crimelord’s death sentence hadn’t quite worn off. “I was late again last night and he said…he said I needed to learn a lesson. He was going to…he tried to…” She choked on the last few words, the realization that he was going to use her finally sinking in.
Tilden closed the gap between them and gently pulled the sword from Eliowy’s limp hand. He put a comforting arm around her shoulders. Eliowy didn’t notice.
“I always carry a dagger,” she continued, after a moment, staring blankly at the open wardrobe door and seeing again Liriss’ enraged eyes glaring at her from across the room. “So when he grabbed me…I cut him…”
Tilden bit his tongue to refrain from commenting on this foolish audacity. No employee, in all the years that the scout had worked for Liriss, had dared to pull a weapon on Dargon’s crimelord, let alone take one to his flesh. That he hadn’t outright killed the girl was surprising; that she was still alive at all to tell about the incident was a minor miracle. Tilden listened in fascination as she continued the tale, eyes staring blank and fearful at the door as she re-lived the incident.
The wood paneling of the wall was smooth against her right palm, the looped wire grip of her knife warming slowly in her left. Light glinted off the blade’s edge, staining the steel a dull, burnished orange. Despite the tremors running through her body, her weapon arm and dagger remained steady.
“You’ll never get away with this, Eliowy,” said her target icily, large hand pressed firmly against the long cut on his chest. Though shallow, the wound dripped blood steadily and clashed with the rich gold of his shirt.
“Don’t bet on that,” said Eliowy. She took the final step that brought her to the door. Fear, oozing out of her sub-conscious into her body, had not yet reached her mind and even as she shook in terror, she eyed the man calmly.
As she glanced over her shoulder to locate the door handle, Liriss lunged for her, only to freeze again when she turned back to face him. “Just stay back,” Eliowy warned, treatening with the bloodied knife. Pulling the door open, she sidestepped into the opening. “If you take one more step,” she said as Liriss moved again, “I’ll kill you.”
“I’ll see that you die slowly and painfully for this!”
“Not if you can’t find me.”
Both knew this was no idle statement. Eliowy was very experienced at running and hiding and Liriss knew that if he couldn’t get a tail on her immediately after she left him, she was as good as lost. The same skills that kept the town guard off her back and had kept her safe through months of running cross country would keep her from falling to Liriss’ underlings.
Eliowy stepped carefully backwards into the outer office. Liriss followed, eyes glittering angrily. His need to do something almost over-rode the threat her knife offered and, as Eliowy glanced behind herself to spot the outer door, he lunged for her.
The knife opened a foot long slice in Liriss’ gut as Eliowy brought the blade around to defend herself. With a bellowed cry of pain, the crimelord fell to his knees, gasping, arms clutching his stomach, trying to stop the blood.
Little crimson trails crawled down the dagger and across Eliowy’s hand to disappear into the embroidered cuff of her red tunic. She stared at her attacker for an instant, before turning and bolting. The door crashed back on its hinges just as Liriss collapsed to the floor.
“I ran into Kesrin in the hall,” added Eliowy into the pause that followed. Tilden said nothing, astounded that she’d been able to hurt his former boss so easily. “And he brought me back to Liriss’ office. Liriss…wasn’t in any condition to give orders so Kesrin sent for guards to take me down to the blocks…” Her voice trembled at the thought of how close she had come to dying in the rising tide.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” said Tilden, squeezing her shoulders gently. “The guards let you go?”
“No…some man rescued me. I…didn’t think it wise to stay around and see if he won or not…” The image of the blonde haired man fighting with the two guards rose before her eyes again. He had won. He wouldn’t have attacked the guards if he didn’t think he had a chance. Which raised the question of why he had rescued her at all. Eliowy dismissed the question immediately. She didn’t have time to worry about the reasons behind the fortuitous rescue. She had to take care of herself. If he survived the battle and she ever saw him again, she would thank him properly. But until then, there were more important things to worry about.
Eliowy realized that Tilden’s arm was wrapped possessively about her shoulders and glared at him. “I said that I didn’t want to deal with you again, Tilden.” she said, annoyance pushing aside her fear. She ducked under his arm to get away from him.
“What Liriss did to you was terrible,” continued the former scout, catching hold of her collar as Eliowy tried to duck away. “He deserved what you did to him. More than what you did. I asked for your help before and you said no. Now you have a reason. Help me to kill Liriss!” The wild, almost mad light that Eliowy was used to seeing in Tilden’s eyes grew brighter. His sanity seemed to slip away as his need to kill the crimelord took over. He shook her as she stared at him. “Help me! You must help me kill him!”
“Let go!” Eliowy tried to yank out of his grip and did nothing more than pull the cloth of her tunic tight around her throat. She grasped at her dagger.
“If you won’t help me willingly,” threatened Tilden, pulling her close. “I’ll just use you as bait. To lure that creeping slime to me. I don’t need your cooperation. Just your body.”
Eliowy could feel his hot breath on her neck as she reached around and stabbed him in the arm with her knife. With a loud scream of surprised pain, Tilden jerked away. Eliowy slashed him across the throat as she turned to face him fully.
Tiny red bubbles formed at the corner of Tilden’s mouth. His hand reached towards his neck in confused surprise as he slid to his knees making no other sound. Eliowy stared at him in fascinated horror as he slumped to his side.
She’d never dreamed when Teran first started teaching her bladework that she would ever be able to kill someone. Too many times on this panicked escape she’d proven herself wrong. Tears of regret and fear filled the girl’s eyes and she started shaking again.
Heavy pounding on the door brought her to her senses.
“Eliowy? Is everything all right in there? Eliowy!” The voice of Madame Tillipanary rang faintly through the heavy wooden portal. “Open the door, Eliowy! What’s happened?”
“Oh, no…” Eliowy looked away from the door. Calm settled over her and she sheathed the knife after cleaning the point on the hem of Tilden’s dirty shirt. She pulled on her cloak and pack, then stepped to the window.
The pounding became more insistent.
Eliowy pulled open the shutters of the double window. Stepping out onto the balcony, she knelt down and let herself carefully over the edge, leaving fingerprints, red from Tilden’s blood, on the sill.
Sergent Coressa DaVrice let her patrol down Layman Street, keeping eyes wide open for things in the alleys and shadows. Layman Street and the area around it within a quarter mile of the dock were not the best place to be caught daydreaming in. Her troop of six had drawn night duty for the last three weeks and the territory had steadily been getting worse as each week passed. They carried shields, heavy swords and wore full corslets in this part of town these days. It seemed that the local crimelord was consolidating his position and the gang warfare had been bitter recently. The upper echelons of the town guard were even sure who was behind the trouble, but they couldn’t prove anything, so the street fighting continued. Except where the guard could stop it.
“This is absolutely the last time I put the companies duty up as stake in a card game and win!” DaVrice muttered to herself as they passed in front of the most profitable brothel in town. A horse in full riding gear was tethered out front. This struck Coressa as odd because the Lucky Lady also had one of the better stables in the area and client’s transportation usually received the same good treatment as the client themselves.
She was about to comment on this to her second when he stepped up beside her.
“Yes, Caisy?” He was supposed to be guarding the rear and shouldn’t have come forward without orders. Not that she minded much, but if the Lieutenant should happen by…
“Looks like there’s someone hanging from the second story window of the Lady,” Caisy informed her, pointing.
Sure enough, when DaVrice looked, there was a slender shadow dangling over the balcony’s edge.
“You there!” she called, motioning the three of the four guards directly behind her to get underneath the window. “Stay where you are!” Who would be leaving the Lucky Lady by anything but the front door, DaVrice wondered as she led the rest of the patrol through the invitingly cracked door. Not a thief. The Lady hadn’t been robbed since it opened ten years ago, despite the amount of wealth rumored to be held inside. It couldn’t be a `client’ either–if one started harassing the employees he left by the front door, usually with a new set of bruises. The Lady was strict about screening visitors.
The cloaked form resolved itself into a slender female in the light of the soldier’s lantern as they clustered beneath the balcony. She let go at the same time as the sound of splintering wood echoed down the nearly deserted street. A scream from inside marked the person landing on the nearest guard. They both tumbled to the ground in an untidy heap.
Eliowy rolled free of the unconscious guard’s body as one of his companions grabbed for her. She dodged the ill-timed snatch and ploughed into the other one, shoving him aside. He stumbled and fell over his fallen partner, while the first one made another grab for the girl.
She just missed catching ahold of the trailing cloak as Eliowy ran for her stolen horse. Grabbing the reins, she was missed again as she swung into the saddle. Curses erupted and the guard made a try for the bridle. Eliowy ran her down, goading the horse into a trot, then a canter, and finally a dead run.
Whistles and more shouts caught on the wind and followed her as she headed towards Main Street.
“…scream so naturally I rushed right up,” Madame Tillipanary was saying when Kalen Darklen arrived on the second floor of the Lucky Lady. Her well manicured fingers clasped and unclasped nervously in her pale green wrap. “The door was locked and when I knocked and called, there was no answer.”
“So you had one of your bouncers break the door in,” Sergent DaVrice said. She inclined her head to Kalen as he stepped up beside her, but kept her attention focused on the woman before her.
“Bernail, yes. The safety of both my girls and my clients is of great importance to me, you understand.” Madame Tillipanary looked from the guard sergent to the lieutenant earnestly. “Anyway, HE was lying on the floor when we got in. And the windows were open.”
“We arrived upstairs a minute after he took the door out,” DaVrice directed the comment to Kalen. “Just about the time our prime suspect jumped. Roji, Paone, and Liat let her escape. I sent them to try and warn the gate guards,” she added at Kalen’s frown.
“Tell me about our suspect,” said Kalen, folding his arms. He was easy-going, but letting a possible murderer slip right through your fingers was one good way to make him angry.
“Female, sir, but that’s as far as I got. Madame?” DaVrice and Kalen turned their attention back to Tillipanary. The sheet clad woman who had been whispering to her stepped hastily back and the madame’s expression abruptly smoothed.
“The child’s name is Eliowy K’rill,” Tillipanary said. “She’s not one of my girls. A friend of mine asked me to keep an eye on her, so I gave her one of my empty rooms.” Kalen glanced at DaVrice. Both could guess who the woman’s “friend” was and why he wanted the girl looked after at a brothel. “She’s not very tall,” the madame continued, not seeming to notice the exchange of glances. “She was pretty, but not a great beauty. Fair, oval face, auburn hair and curious golden eyes.”
Kalen gave the woman a startled look. “Are you sure about that?” he demanded. “The eyes and the hair?”
“Yes, Lieutenant, I’m sure,” said Tillipanary, puzzled. Under the questioning look she studied the guard closely. “She was always such a nice, polite child. She didn’t seem capable of this…” She gestured vaguely at Tilden’s sheet shrouded body.
“Be that as it may,” muttered Kalen. “Sergent, organize another squad of six. Search the city for this Eliowy K’rill and inform the other patrols to keep an active look out. Suspicion of theft and murder.”
“Yes, sir!” DaVrice saluted crisply and led the remnant of her squad down the carpeted stairs.
“Only suspicion…?” Madame Tillipanary’s voice trailed off questioningly as the guards disappeared from sight.
“There is always the possibility that this was self-defense,” said Kalen neutrally. One time luck, two times coincidance, three times a charge. Kalen didn’t think this incident was just a coincidance. Red hair was rare enough along the coasts to be notable. And those eyes… “Until I have a chance to question the girl, we can’t be positive. If you think of anything else, Madam, please report it to the Guard.”
“Of course, Lieutenant,” said Madame Tillipanary agreeably. “I’m sure that you’ll want to investigate further, and there is the matter of the body,” the woman averted her painted eyes. “So I’ll have his hallway closed off. It’s accessible by the back stairs. If you would please use those, I would greatly appreciate it. To avoid the customers, you understand.”
“Of course,” said Kalen dryly. “I’ll have someone come to deal with the body tonight. Good evening.”
The last thing Kalen saw as he left the room was the same sheet clad prostitute whispering frantically in her madame’s ear and the look of pleased speculation on Tillipanary’s face.
Madame Tillipanary hurried through the chill autumn night, wind pulling at her heavily embroidered cloak. She kept one hand on the dagger belted around her waist, in case one of the punks thought she might be a target. With the gang wars in full swing, being Liriss’ employee was no longer a guarantee of safe passage along the night streets.
She arrived at the steps of Liriss’ town house without incident. Two personal guards, older men who had been with the crimelord almost as long as Tillipanary herself, nodded to her as she hurried up the stairs and pulled open the door. Of all the people who worked for Liriss, the madame was the only one besides his lieutenant who was permitted access to him at any time.
A gust of wind pushed the woman inside and set the expensive beeswax candles dancing in their suspended chandelier. Shadows capered around the sparsely furnished room, hiding doors to the left and right. A staircase crawled up the far wall.
Her delicate slippers made no sound on the hardwood floor as Tillipanary made her way towards the stairs. Picking up her disaphorus skirts, she started up the steep walk, only to be stopped on the landing by Kesrin, Liriss’ lieutenant.
“May I help you, madam?” he inquired politely, blocking her way to the second floor. Sharp hazel eyes studied the woman out of a neutral expression.
“I must speak to Lord Liriss immediately,” declared Tillipanary. She’d considered Kesrin a nuisance since the day he’d risen to prominence from obscurity eight years ago and she’d never bothered to hide the fact. She was certain that his careful, precise manners hid something and it frustrated the madame that she hadn’t yet been able to figure out what. “Get out of my way, Kesrin. This can’t wait.” She tried to step past him again only to have him interfear once more.
“Lord Liriss isn’t seeing anyone this evening, madame,” said Kesrin firmly, catching the woman’s elbow. “You can tell me, if it is so important and I’ll see to it that my Lord hears of it.”
“Let me go,” Tillipanary ordered coldly. “I’ll tell Liriss and no one else.”
“He’s not seeing anyone this evening,” Kesrin repeated, tightening his grip on her arm when she tried to pull away.
“He’ll see me.”
“Don’t feed me that line,” snapped Tillipanary. “He takes his girls in his office, not his home. And if you do not let go of me this instant–”
“My Lord Mardos.” A new voice rolled through the argument, followed by a tall, slender man in well cared for physician’s robes. “Lord Liriss is resting comfortably. I’ve bandaged the wounds and left a jar of medicine for the pain by his bed. Mix a spoonful with water or wine if he needs it. And don’t let him up until the end of next week, at least.” The spate of instructions preceded him down the stairs as he joined them on the landing. “My Lady.” He nodded politely to Tillipanary.
“Thank you, Doctor,” said Kesrin calmly, while beside him the madame paled. “Your fee will be delivered to you in the morning.”
The doctor bowed. “Then I bid you good evening, my Lord, my Lady,” and he swept down the stairs.
Tillipanary waited until the door boomed shut before turning on Kesrin.
“What in the name of the Red Garter of Randiriel is going on!”
“Lord Liriss was attacked this evening,” said Kesrin after considering the slender woman for a long moment. “By the girl he sent to stay with you.”
“Eliowy,” breathed the madame. She shook off the chill feeling of dread and explained softly; “She killed Tilden tonight just after sundown. The City Guard got involved…”
“That’s not possible!” Kesrin burst out, his unflappable poise cracking for once. “I sent her to the blocks tonight. Just BEFORE sundown. She’s supposed to be dead!”
“Well she’s not!” Tillipanary hissed, her expression going cold. “You’d better plan on doing something about your lapse, Kesrin. Lord Liriss will not be pleased to hear that she’s escaped.” Despite her concern about Liriss, the madame spared enough emotion to feel pleased that her hated rival was in a very dangerous situation.
“I will deal with it,” responded Kesrin just as coldly, his poised manners and neutral expression back in place. “Thank you for bringing me this information. I’ll mention to Lord Liriss that you dropped by.”
“I appreciate that,” Tillipanary said, voice too sweet. “I’ll drop by tomorrow to see Liriss. He’d best be alive tomorrow.” She pulled away from Kesrin and made her way back down the steps, solitiously accompanied by the lieutenant.
`Of course Liriss will be alive tomorrow,’ he thought, escorting the madame to the door. Despite all the years of planning, it was still too soon to move and until the time was right, he had a part to play.
As Tillipanary disappeared into the blowy autumn night, Kesrin turned to one of the door guards.
“Find me the assassin, Kendall,” he ordered. “And I want him here yesterday.”
Pale, early morning sunlight gilded the grass and leaves and reflected in bright sparkles from the stream beside the road. A cloud of dust settled gently back to the ground, eddying in mini-whirlwinds as Eliowy led her horse towards the thick trickle of water. Sweat dribbled down the beast’s coat, cutting narrow tracks in the foam.
“Sorry, boy,” she said softly, patting the horse’s shoulder as he wearily bent his head to drink. “But we needed to put lots of distance between us and Dargon.” The horse didn’t react, greedily filling his stomach with the cold water. Eliowy scratched his ears, wondering if the creature’s original owner had survived the pier-side fight. In a way she hoped he had. Someone that kind didn’t deserve to die in a battle with cutthroats. But at the same time, she hoped he hadn’t. Someone that kind also didn’t deserve to have his mount stolen. “As soon as you’re rested,” she added, “we’re leaving. We’re still too close to the city for comfort.”
She pulled the horse away from the water so he wouldn’t drink himself sick, and tied him to a nearby bush so that he could browse. After quenching her own thirst, she settled by the stream’s edge, planning to rest until the horse had eaten enough to continue on.
Good, paranoid intentions fell by the wayside as weariness combined with the unusually warm autumn sun caught up with Eliowy and she drifted off into much needed sleep.
A shadow across her face, blocking the sun’s heat brought Eliowy abruptly out of an uneasy doze. She opened her eyes and had her bleary sight filled by a horse’s nose.
“How did you get loose,” she mumbled, sitting up and reaching for the reins. She froze, seeing someone else’s hands on the smooth straps. “Oh no…”
“Good afternoon, Eliowy,” Teran said quietly, sitting stiffly in the saddle. The bay twitched its ears restlessly.
The blue of his tunic matched the rich blue of the sky and Eliowy found her attention caught by the embroidery at its neck; tracing the interlocking patterns with her vision meant she didn’t have to meet her teacher’s azure-blue gaze.
She climbed to her feet, eyes still fixed on Teran’s throat. “Good afternoon to you,” responded the girl, more out of habit than politeness. She backed up a step, towards where her horse was tethered. Teran didn’t move. She took another step back and still the man didn’t shift. Eliowy took one more step, turned to bolt for her horse and froze.
It wasn’t there.
She whirled back to face Teran, eyes wild. His expression hadn’t altered. With casual deliberance he swung out of the saddle to the ground.
Eliowy twitched, but stood her ground. There was no way to escape; she couldn’t out-run him and she wouldn’t return home with him. Fear crawled into her throat, drying it instantly, leaving behind the bitter taste of panic. The desire to be left alone overwhelmed her. A hand crept to the hilt of her sword. The sword that was a gift from the same man she contemplated using it on.
Something caught her back before she could do more than bare an inch of the blade. Perhaps the memory of the man beating her around the practice yard or of him giving her the blade on her last birthday penetrated her panicked mind. Either way, she allowed the sword to slide back into its sheath.
And still Teran did not move.
Eliowy didn’t pause long enough to wonder why he’d done nothing. Cloak swirling in a self-created wind, she turned to run.
She made it away only so far as the edge of the stream before Teran caught her by the trailing cloak. And found the cloth loose in his hands when Eliowy pulled the clasp open. He reached again and grabbed the girl’s collar, pulling her close before she could slip out of that too.
Eliowy’s tiny wrists nearly disappeared in the blonde man’s grip and she tugged uselessly against his strength. Fury penetrated her panic and she slammed her heel down on his foot, hard. Teran grunted in pain, drawing his leg back, but did not loosen his grip. A second later he thrust her away from him when she bit him in the wrist.
“You’re not taking me back,” Eliowy informed him firmly, suddenly calm. Amber eyes blazed like a torch, at odds with the level declaration. This time the sword did clear the sheath, glinting with the same fire that burned in her eyes. “I refuse to go. Just leave me alone.”
“Eliowy, we need to talk,” said Teran quietly, gaze flickering between her face and the sword. “But not with blades. Put it away.”
“As soon as you go,” Eliowy replied, slipping into a guard position. The leather wrapped hilt felt warm in the palm of her hand and as she extended the blade, sparks seemed to glint on its edge.
Teran drew up short. His eyes narrowed as he studied the girl. Then he nodded sharply. “So be it, then.” And he drew his own weapon, matching Eliowy’s stance almost exactly.
Surprise flickered though Eliowy’s eyes, but she didn’t hesitate when he came at her.
The parry was automatic and strong. As their blades connected the crash echoed through the air, followed by a gentle whoosh and a white hot explosion. The force blew the combatants away from one another and withered the grass into crumbling grey ash around them.
A shocked silence spread away from the stream on the summer-hot wind that followed the blast.