Lady, Warrior, Healer, Thief

By Leslie Ann Miller

Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story. This chapter makes reference to a rape in the past. No details are provided, but it is an important plot point.



CHAPTER 6: GATHERING ALLIES

Keen lowered the ax and touched the blade with her thumb to test its edge. "Lord’s piss!" she swore, and yanked her thumb away, bloody.

"I shouldn’t think that the gods would see fit to give you a dull blade," Merlynn smiled.

"I barely touched it," Keen said wonderingly. "Look at the metal in this blade," she said, holding it out for the healer to see. "I’ve not seen anything like it before.... see these dark bands here and here...?"

"The G-Gods’ smith, Anar, is said to have f-forged a sword with such b-bands for Sogard, Guardian of D-Death’s Dungeon," Jewels said, looking over her shoulder.

"There isn’t a warrior alive who doesn’t fear the touch of that blade," Keen said slowly, turning the ax over in her hands. "But there is no smith’s mark on this blade."

"P-perhaps the bands are the smith’s m-mark."

Wraith could sense that Keen found this thought disquieting.

"Interesting," she said finally, carefully putting the ax down beside her pack. "We must decide what we will do when the fires finally burn themselves out. I do not think it would be wise to go back into the tunnels if we can avoid it."

"Agreed," Merlynn said, wiping the sweat from her forehead. "We must find the rightful heir to the throne. The prophesy suggests that he... or she... would be one of the King’s bastard children. I would think, however, that the rightful heir would have Redax blood." She looked at Jewels pointedly, and the girl swallowed.

"D-Duke Redax is my g-grandfather, but, but I c-couldn’t possibly be the r-rightful heir," she said, blushing. "I’m a g-girl... the right of succession always goes to the m-male heir. Lornon Bower... the m-man who p-passed us in the Rift fleeing from your friend, Keen... he is the s-son of my m-mother’s sister. He would make a f-fine King, I think. Duke Bower thought v-very highly of him..."

"Thought?" Keen asked.

Jewels swallowed. "When he believed Lornon was his own s-son."

"Ah, yes. Well, we must hope that Mar has not succeeded in finding him yet, then. As soon as it is safe to do so, we must return to the Rift."

"When I lived in Bower’s Forest, I heard that Lord Lornon was a fine hunter and tracker," Merlynn said, thoughtfully. "Perhaps he will find a way to elude your friend. But if he is so skilled, how can we hope to find him?"

Keen settled on the floor of the cave and leaned back against a wall. "I don’t know. But again, if the gods will it, we shall succeed. I don’t suppose you have any tracking skills yourself?"

"In a forest, yes. But in the rocky barrens of the Rift? I doubt if I shall be of much help there."

Wraith screwed up her courage to speak. "I will help," she said quietly. "I can track on stone and rock, so long as we go in the dark."

Merlynn smiled at her. "There you have it, Keen," Merlynn said. "I will pray to the Lady to save Lornon’s life, and Wraith will lead us to him."

"Hmph."

Despite her outward skepticism, Wraith could tell that the lady warrior was pleased.

She sat back down in the darkest shadows of the cave afraid to come any closer to the humans despite their change in attitude towards her. She still wasn’t entirely sure she could trust Keen. The Avatar’s prophesy had been vague at best, and she was not especially comfortable with having been named "thief," or "doomed." Perhaps they would decide she was not trustworthy after all. Nevertheless, she had to marvel at her change in situation. At least Keen was no longer oath-bound to kill her.

**********

It was two days before it was finally safe for them to leave the cave. Wraith was forced to find water for her human companions from sources deep inside the mountains. It was difficult and dangerous because the mountains still rocked and shook, causing rock falls and tunnel collapses. Thankfully, the miners had provided the humans with ample rations so they were not yet short on food.

Wraith wondered how the blackelf Home had faired... certainly the shag colonies were in turmoil, but they were far less well constructed than Home and much closer to the surface. At her recommendation, Keen posted watch on the tunnel entrance to the cave. There was no telling when a frightened band of shags might try fleeing to the surface through any route available, not knowing that death awaited them in the Out as surely as In.

In the meantime, Merlynn recovered rapidly from her ordeal with the poison, and the healer seemed little worse for wear.

When Keen and Merlynn finally deemed it safe, Wraith led them from the shelter of the cave at night to begin their journey back to the Rift.

***********

The moon was bright overhead as Wraith sat quietly on a high boulder somewhere in the middle of the wasteland that the humans called the Rift. It had been easy to see where a group of horses had veered from the main road, ostensibly setting off across the wild territory in pursuit of their quarry, but she had lost the trail here. The solid stone ground left no clues behind for her to follow, no disturbed sand, no hoof prints, however light.

Below, Keen tapped her foot impatiently. "What are you doing up there?" she grumped.

Wraith sighed. At this rate, she would never be able to concentrate enough to pick up any sign of the bounty hunters or Lornon. "I am trying to focus," she said patiently.

"On what? A rock?"

"Keen, leave her be," Merlynn said calmly. "She’s led us this far."

"But she’s lost now." The warrior looked up at Wraith, frowning. "Aren’t you?"

"I have lost the trail," Wraith acknowledged, "but I may still be able to find them."

"Without a trail?" Keen asked skeptically.

"Using m-magic?" Jewels asked hopefully.

Wraith rolled her eyes. She did not understand this human fascination with magic. She did not think of her abilities as being "magical." They were just a part of her. "You humans have very loud emotions," she said quietly. "You project them for all to… hear. I am but listening for them…" she waved her hand vaguely at the surrounding darkness, "…out there. If you would stop disturbing me..."

Merlynn chuckled. "I think we’ve just been dismissed. And here I thought healers were empathic."

Keen groaned and muttered softly under her breath. "As long as she can’t read my mind. I’d have to kill her then."

"I don’t need to read your mind when I can hear all you say," Wraith said, amused, knowing that the warrior had not intended for her to hear the comment. Keen still pretended that she did not like Wraith, but Wraith could sense differently. In the several days’ journey back into the Rift, she had impressed the warrior with her skills. For all her bluster to the contrary, Wraith knew that she’d been accepted as a member of their small group, and with acceptance came a degree of trust and respect. She valued that. She valued it very much indeed, and, for that reason, she did not want to fail them now.

"L-let’s go over there," Jewels said, taking the other two women’s arms in her own and leading them away from Wraith’s boulder.

Wraith sighed gratefully and took a deep breath, trying to still the thoughts in her mind. This would not be easy. The close presence of her companions was distracting, as was the brightness of the moon overhead and the sense of wide openness all around. She suppressed a mental shudder. She could not allow herself to think of that. She felt exposed on the boulder, vulnerable, visible to any who might be looking. A slight breeze tickled the hair on the back of her neck, and she shivered.

On the breeze was the faintest smell of smoke. She frowned.

The wind was coming from the wrong direction for the scent to have come from the still smoldering mountains to the west. Wraith stood up, looking out across rugged landscape. Another breath of wind brought the smell of horses, leather, and unwashed humans. She laughed quietly to herself. In the far distance, no doubt invisible to human eyes, was the faintest flickering of light from a campfire reflecting off of rock and stone.

***********************

"Mar is on watch," Keen whispered happily, looking down at the bounty hunters’ camp from a perch on yet another large boulder. "And I don’t see any sign of the dog."

Wraith looked at the man sitting awake near the fire, surrounded by his snoring companions who were bundled tightly in their cloaks. He appeared to be tall from the length of his folded legs, and he had a dark mustache that curled slightly on the ends.

She hoped she had done the right thing in leading Keen here, leaving Merlynn and Jewels behind to set up a campsite of their own in a protected, sheltered hollow. Keen wanted to get Markisander away from his companions for a chat. They needed to know if they’d caught or killed Lornon yet, or had any suspicions of his whereabouts.

"Stay here," Keen whispered, and quietly slid off the rock.

Wraith was quite impressed with Keen’s ability to move silently when necessary. Apparently the woman had some experience in stealth, because she got very close to the circle of light from the fire before the man on guard stood up suddenly, drawing his sword.

"Psssst," she heard Keen say softly. "Mar."

"Who’s there?" the man asked, stepping forward. Wraith noted that his companions did not stir at this exchange, and she shook her head at the humans’ inability to see in the dark and their obliviousness to noise.

"It’s me, Keen," the warrior said.

"Come forward into the light," the man said.

Keen did as he asked.

The man smiled when she stepped forward. "Keen! What are you doing here? How did you find us?"

"I need to talk to you."

"I’m listening," the man said, sheathing his sword.

"Not here." She nodded at the sleeping figures. "I don’t want to wake them up." She looked around. "What happened to the dog?"

"Found a scent he wouldn’t give up," Markisander shrugged. "We couldn’t get him to come back to us. He’s probably in High Hasture by now."

"Tough luck. C’mon. Let’s go talk."

"All right, but make it fast," Markisander agreed, following Keen into the darkness.

She led him near the boulder where Wraith was waiting.

"I thought I'd never see you again, Keeniserian. Did Dragonfire scare you away?" Markisander asked, glancing back at the camp as if to reassure himself that he could still protect his companions if necessary. Wraith realized that he had not yet noticed her in the dark.

Keen grinned. "No, my friend, I was in the tunnels when the mount erupted."

"In the tunnels? So why have you come searching for me? Did you take a dislike to the darkness?"

Keen shrugged. "No. I came here to ask your help, Markisander."

Markisander halted and spat to one side. "Not for all the gold in the King's coffers."

Keen laughed quietly. "I'm not asking you to go into the tunnels, Mar. I've already completed that quest."

He looked at her incredulously. "What?! You found the blackelf?"

"Yes," Keen said quietly. "And now I want to find the one that you seek as well."

"Why? If you killed the blackelf you should have no need for more bounty!"

"Mar," Keen said taking putting her hand on his arm, "Please come back to my camp so I can explain. This is not what you think."

"I don't like the sound of this, Keeniserian," Markisander said warily.

Wraith saw his hand shift slightly toward a dagger on his belt. She pulled out a dagger that Keen had given her and gripped it tightly. If he tried to hurt Keen, she would stop him.

Keen had not missed the motion, either. She raised her hands. "Mar, just hear me out, for old friendship's sake."

Markisander frowned. "I’m on watch. I can’t leave."

"You owe me, Mar. Please. They’ll be fine. My camp isn’t far from here. The horses will give warning if anything is amiss."

The man hesitated, then nodded. "Very well."

Keen led him swiftly and surely back to their camp, Wraith following silently, and unseen, behind them.

Merlynn and Jewels were sitting quietly around a small campfire when Keen and Markisander squeezed between two of the rocks surrounding the small hollow. Wraith climbed up on a stone formation where she could see the surrounding Rift and her companions below.

Though he concealed it well, Wraith could sense Markisander's surprise at seeing two other women at Keen's camp.

Keen smiled. "Markisander, these are my two companions, Jewels and Merlynn. Merlynn is one of the Lady's healers."

Markisander bowed deeply to them both. "I am honored, Ladies."

"Sit," Keen said, settling down beside the coals.

Markisander sat awkwardly.

"Mar, old friend, my companions and I were visited by an Avatar while we were in the tunnels."

He frowned. "An Avatar?"

Keen nodded, and cleared her throat. "He told me to break my oath to the King. And he gave me another quest. Actually, he gave us another quest."

"It sounds like a reasonable excuse," Markisander grinned. "Why do you need my help? To verify your story?"

Keen laughed, then sobered. "It's no excuse, Mar. It's the truth."

Markisander absorbed this statement doubtfully. Finally, he shook his head. "Go on, then."

"The Avatar's message was rather...er...vague," Keen said pursing her lips. "However, we have interpreted his words to mean that we are supposed to find the rightful heir to the throne, and overthrow the King."

"What?!" Markisander exclaimed loudly. "Have you taken leave of your senses?!"

"Wait," Keen said, standing. She grabbed the battle ax and held it out. "The Avatar left me this. Feel it, my friend. You've never felt its like. It will cut through mail like butter."

Markisander looked at the ax incredulously, but didn’t touch it.

Keen glanced at Jewels. "Jewels, could we have some light please?"

Jewels threw some more brush on the fire, and the flames leapt into the crisp night air. The ax glowed red in the firelight.

Markisander scrambled to his feet and backed away. Wraith could feel that he suddenly felt trapped.

Keen snorted. "What are you afraid of, Mar? We just need to find the Redax bastard and set him on the throne. Then, in his gratitude to us, he will give us riches and retirement."

"You've lost your mind, Keeniserian! Do you hear what you're saying?"

"Yes, she does," Merlynn said. "The Gods have told us to do this deed, so we must try."

"Gods," he scoffed. "I hardly believe in Gods. And why should the Gods give such a task to you three?"

"Do you doubt the powers or the wisdom of the Lady?" Merlynn asked. "Have you not felt her healing powers, soldier? Would you have me tell Her of your disbelief?"

Markisander paled. "N-no, healer." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, lady, I meant no offense."

Merlynn smiled. "Of course not. None is taken."

"We need your help, Mar," Keen said simply. "You're tracking one of the six from the Redax household. We need to get to him before the brothers who hired you. The Redaxes lost the throne in the war, so we think it must be someone with Redax blood who will take the scepter from the King."

"So you want me to mislead the men who hired me?" Markisander asked.

Keen nodded.

Markisander shook his head. "How can you ask me to do that, my friend? I must think about my honor. They bought me a horse. They have paid for my food and lodging on the journey here. It would hardly be honorable for me to forsake them now."

Keen sighed. "Yes, I suppose that is true." She raised her ax and stepped forward before he could back away. "So I leave you no choice, my friend. Unbuckle your sword belt."

His face hardened. "What are you doing?"

"We are taking you prisoner," Keen said.

"Prisoner?" he asked in surprise. "And if I resist?"

"I will kill you."

"You are mad!" he said. "Absolutely mad! You've been enchanted by blackelves!"

"Very probably," Keen smiled. "Which makes me all the more dangerous."

"Gods damn this insanity. You wouldn't dare kill me, Keeniserian," he said. "Not like this."

"Perhaps," Keen shrugged. "But if I can't, then my friend the blackelf will. She is not overly fond of humans, I think. And she is very good with a throwing knife. You'll never get back to your camp alive."

Markisander's eyes searched the darkness. Wraith knew, however, that he couldn't see her. "Blackelf friend? I don't believe you," he said coldly and took a step towards Keen.

With a soft thud, a knife protruded from the ground in front of his foot.

He stared at it incredulously.

Keen grinned. "You were saying, my friend?"

"I can't believe you're doing this!" he said furiously, his eyes searching the darkness for the source of the thrown dagger.

"You'd best get used to it," Keen said. "I'm afraid that we are very serious. Deadly serious, Mar. Please don't make it difficult."

He surveyed the darkness again. "Difficult?" he asked with a wry smile. "No, I should think not." Suddenly he laughed, harshly. "It is you that are impossible." He looked at Merlynn and Jewels. "You follow a madwoman!"

Merlynn smiled. "No. We saw the Avatar. He spoke to each of us. It is the world that has gone mad, Markisander. It is the King who has gone mad, ordering this butchery of the Six."

"I will not be a party to treason."

"If anyone asks," Keen said dryly, "I'll tell them we forced you to it."

"Ha! Three women? And a laughing stock I'll be, then."

"Four women," corrected Keen. "A Lady, a warrior, a healer… and our blackelf friend, the thief. It is no shame, Mar. Four to one odds are not good, as any warrior knows. And we have the Gods behind us. Now, unbuckle your sword."

Markisander shook his hand in Keen's face. "Damn you, woman. I shall not lightly forgive you for this!"

"I did not expect you to," Keen said softly.

Markisander snorted and unbuckled his sword belt. He tossed it into the dirt at Keen's feet.

Keen picked it up and handed it to Jewels. "Keep it safe," she instructed.

Jewels looked at it, appalled. "B-but..."

"No buts. You need to learn how to use one, eventually. You will wear this one to get used to the feel. You don't have to use it unless he tries to take it from you. Then you can kill him with it."

Jewels paled. "K-kill him?"

Keen pursed her lips. "Pretend you're skinning a rabbit."

Markisander growled in his throat. "I'm much harder to kill than a rabbit, girl. Don't listen to this crazy woman. She’ll get you killed."

Jewels blinked at him and pushed her spectacles up. "W-well, it, it's true that I d-don't know how to use a sword..." She glanced at Keen, "S-so if you try to take it from me I will have t-to roast you with a blackelf spell."

Markisander's intimidating expression fell comically. It took Wraith all of her self control to keep from laughing in surprise, and Merlynn steeled her face, trying to look thoughtful.

Keen smiled, and nodded approvingly. "That will do nicely."

Markisander rolled his eyes. "Gods protect me," he swore, sitting down heavily.

"Lady's blessing," Merlynn said quietly.

He bowed his head towards her. "Thank you, healer."

A shooting star streaked overhead, its trail blazing bright green against the black sky.

"A sign," Merlynn smiled. "The Gods are watching, Markisander."

He continued to stare at the sky long after the star had gone. Finally, he looked at Merlynn. "Did you really see an Avatar, healer?" he asked slowly.

Merlynn nodded.

"And it told you to do this deed?"

Merlynn nodded again, and repeated the Avatar's words to them.

Markisander listened attentively. When she was done, he stared into the flames of the fire. "Could you have imagined it? Perhaps the smoke and fumes..."

Keen shook her head. "He left us the ax, Mar," she said quietly, holding it out again. "Your word you won't use it against us?"

"My word," he said after a moment's pause. He took the ax and examined it carefully, testing its balance and strength. When he was done he shook his head in disbelief. "It's a fine blade. But perhaps blackelves can make the like. Perhaps it was all a blackelf trick. You were in the tunnels, were you not?"

Keen took the ax from his hands and sat down beside him. "Did we imagine that Dragonfire exploded?" she asked. "I think that the blackelves were probably too busy with other matters to worry about deceiving us."

"What about your friend?" he asked, nodding in Wraith's general direction.

"No," Keen said. "I don't believe that she did it, either. It was an Avatar, Mar. An Avatar."

"But it doesn't make sense!"

"Yes it does," Keen said firmly.

"It does?"

"We have nothing to lose," Keen stated. "We can do it because we don't have any other choice. With the exception of Merlynn, the rest of us are doomed if we don't. Jewels and Wraith have prices on their heads, and as long as they are still alive, I will, too."

"Your blackelf friend is the Wraith?" Markisander asked.

Keen nodded.

"Gods above," he said. "And you girl," he said looking at Jewels, "why the price on your head?"

"I'm one of the Six," Jewels answered simply.

Markinsander winced visibly. "I can see, now, why you are in such desperate straights, anyway, my friend," he said to Keen. "Upon your honor, is this the truth?"

"By my honor, it is."

Markisander scratched his head. "You know," he said slowly, "it is a shame that you do not have any horses. But no, I did not mean that. After all, my employers are all mounted and therefore still have the better chance of catching the Redax bastard. And naturally I do not want to assist you in any way."

"Of course not," Keen agreed, grinning. "However, my friend, I'm concerned for you. I believe Wraith and I will go see if we can acquire some horses for you. We must look after our prisoner's comfort, after all, and I wouldn't wish to be cruel by forcing you to walk."

 

"I am afraid of horses," Wraith confessed quietly as she and Keen made their way back to Markisander's camp.

Keen blinked in surprise. "Whatever for? They’re only horses."

"But," Wraith hesitated, hoping the human would not think her too silly, "they are so huge. How do you control them? Do you link minds with them?"

Keen shook her head slowly, considering the idea with an odd expression on her face. "No. They have reigns and bridles and bits. But you won't have to ride one by yourself if you don't want. I’m sure Jewels would let you ride with her. Being a noblewoman, she’s no doubt an accomplished rider. Besides, we won’t have enough horses for everyone to ride by themselves."

"Ride?!" Wraith asked in horror.

"Of course! Why do you think we're going to steal them?"

Wraith suddenly felt very foolish. It had never occurred to her that the humans would expect her to ride. What a dreadful thought...riding on the back of an animal! And such a large, unpredictable animal at that.

"Don't worry," Keen said with a rare smile. "It's fun. Er...you, you might be a bit sore at first. But you get used to it. We won't let you get hurt."

"Thank you," Wraith said meekly, and thought a quick prayer to the Gods Below.

"We should approach from downwind," the warrior whispered as they neared the camp. "Else the horses might smell us and become nervous. Since you are frightened of them, I will get them. You watch the men to make sure they don't wake. And if they do, watch my back. Oh, and… here’s your dagger back. Thanks for making a point with Mar. He’ll be a good man to have with us."

Wraith nodded and took the blade from the warrior’s outstretched hand. "If they wake, I will help you."

Keen smiled, then headed for the horses.

**********

The horse thieving went smoothly, but the next several days’ tracking did not. Neither Markisander during the day, nor Wraith at night could pick up any definite sign of Lornon’s passing. The terrain was rough enough, however, that, assuming the man was pressing westward, there were few choices for him to follow if he wished to remain on horseback. On the fifth night, following Wraith’s keen nose, they found his lame horse, obviously abandoned. Luck turned in their direction at that point. This close to the mountains, the ground was covered in a fine gray mud courtesy of a rain and Mt. Dragonfire’s recent eruption. From there, it was easy to follow Lornon’s path as he headed towards the mountains.

They caught up with him the next day in the early evening, seeing him climbing through a boulder pitted ravine through which their horses could not pass.

"Lornon!" Elianna called, waving her arms.

The man looked back over his shoulder.

"Lornon, it's m-me, Elianna! Please s-stop! We m-mean you no harm!"

The man hesitated, still looking back, then scanned the rough terrain ahead of him. Grimly, he turned to face them, sword clenched in his fist.

"Stop where you are then, if you mean me no harm!" he shouted back.

Elianna stopped her horse and dismounted, and motioned for the others to do so as well.

"Lornon, we j-just wish to speak with you! Please c-come closer so that we n-need not shout!"

"What are you doing here, cousin? I fear my eyes and ears deceive me, for this is no place for you, Princess! Perchance you are a wizard sent to trap me!"

Elianna put her hands on her hips in what Wraith was starting to recognize as a posture indicative of Royal displeasure. It occurred to her that her mother adopted a similar stance when dealing with an uncooperative High Council.

"I am no w-wizard, Lornon, as you would w-well see if you would but come here and s-stop this chase!"

It was clear that the man was exhausted and near the end of his endurance. Though his face was set with bitter determination, the sweat ran down his brow, and his shoulders drooped with weariness. "Very well, then. You, Princess, may come forward to speak with me. Your companions will stay where they are."

"I don't like this," Keen said. "He may try to hold you hostage. Don't do it."

Merlynn stepped forward, holding up her healer's medallion. "I am one of the Lady's healers," she shouted. "Upon my word of honor, we mean you no harm. Please let me come with the Princess to explain!" It was unlikely that even a desperate man would be foolish enough to harm a healer.

He considered this for a moment, then nodded.

Merlynn climbed down into the ravine, and offered her hand to help Elianna. The girl took her hand and awkwardly scrambled forward, and together they made their way carefully towards Lornon.

"Speak quickly, then, good Cousin," Lornon said with a slight bow when they approached, "for I am a hunted man. As you must well know, there are those who would catch me in these wastes before I make my escape West."

Elianna sighed. "Aye Cousin. But it may surprise you to learn that my n-name, also, was listed among the six. I, t-too, am hunted, and these g-good gentles have helped me escape my would-be c-captors. It is my hope that p-perhaps we can go on t-together..."

Lornon stared at her incredulously. "You? "

Elianna nodded. "The King's guards stole m-me from m-my room at night with Duke Blackmace watching. He d-didn't stop them. He told m-me I was n-no d-daughter of his.... that....." She shook her head. "They t-took me to the Overton bridge on Royal Way to throw me off, but K-Keen, the woman Sword back there, saved me. M-much has happened since then, Lornon.... We know the p-prophesy... the whole prophesy, and we think it concerns you. W-Will you hear us out?"

"If I did not see you standing here in the Rift with my own eyes, I should call this a poor joke, and the teller a fool. I recognize your tall friend with the black hair, up there. He has chased me for many a long day as companion to the Enscot brothers."

"He is Markisander, Lord," Merlynn said, "a friend of Keen's. We have persuaded him to join us and forsake the quest against you." She pointed to the blood staining his blue trousers above his boot. "You are wounded; will you accept my healing as proof of our good intentions?"

Lord Lornon turned towards the Western mountains for a very long moment as if willing them closer, or perhaps trying to determine his chances of reaching them without returning to the road. Slowly, he turned back to face them. He tossed his sword onto the ground, and it clanged against the muddy stone. "Aye healer," he said with a sigh. "My fate is in your hands, and long shall my ghost curse the Lady's name if you betray me."

Merlynn smiled, picked up his sword and handed it back to him. "The Lady's name is safe, then, Lord. Please, let's join the others and make camp so you can hear our story, and I can do my work."

********

Keen was stirring a fire at their campsite when Merlynn finally finished bandaging Lornon's leg. He had not spoken much since joining them, nor had he sheathed his sword. It lay resting across his thighs, and his hand still gripped the hilt.

Wraith sensed that he was still afraid of them, though she did not think he betrayed that fear to the others. The sun's light, though failing, was still too bright for her comfort, so she remained huddled in Keen's cloak in the shadow of a boulder on the opposite side of the fire from him. She was bothered by his fear, because she could sense that he was as afraid of her as he was of Markisander, though for different reasons. He did not know who or what she was, though he suspected strongly. He was afraid of blackelves, and he didn’t understand how she came to be with the others or why they tolerated her presence.

"So, Princess," Lornon finally said. "How do you plan to cross the mountains? The pass near Westmine will surely be guarded heavily. Passage to the North West realm has been closed for generations due to the evil priesthood controlling that land. And the river pass on the other side of Dragonfire may be closed, if what I saw many days ago was not a delusion of my tired mind. "

Jewels shook her head. "No, D-Dragonfire erupted. We were in the W-Westmine tunnels when, when it happened. But we have no intention of g-going West from here, C-Cousin. We are ret-turning to Gideon."

"What?! Are you mad?"

"That seems to be a rather common misconception," Markisander remarked dryly. He was standing beside Wraith, facing the mountains. Absently, he tossed a stone into a nearby pool of steaming water.

"We are not mad," Jewels said with just a touch of indignation. "For perhaps the f-first time in my life, I am quite certain of what I am d-doing."

"And that is?" Lornon prompted.

"We are going back to Gideon to steal the Royal S-scepter."

Lornon laughed. "I am afraid, Princess, that I must inform you of a mistake. You are, in fact, quite mad if those are truly your plans."

"Hear us out," Merlynn said, smiling. "We were in the Westmine tunnels when Dragonfire erupted. In the aftermath, an Avatar of the Gods came to us and spoke to us. He told us the prophesy which we believe sent the King hunting the Six. He said:

"Twice betrayed

But once revenged

Scepter goes to bastard hands

Mace, ax, pike, and bow,

To raise as one.

Inner, Outer,

West and East

To fight the Evil

soon released.

Lady,

Warrior,

Healer,

Thief,

To carry out

The prophesy."

The King is hunting the Six, you see, because they are his bastard children, and the prophesy states that his scepter will go to bastard hands. The Avatar also called the Princess, Lady; Keen, Warrior; myself, Healer; and Wraith, thief. Clearly we are intended to carry out the prophesy somehow.

"Are you suggesting that Duke Bower is not my legitimate father?" Lornon asked with the first vestiges of anger evident in his voice. "That I am being hunted because my real father is the King?!"

Jewels nodded.

Lornon stood, ignoring his bandaged leg. "My priest warned me that my name was on the list of Six, but he didn't tell me why. Gods Be DAMNED!!!" he shouted at the sky.

Merlynn winced.

Suddenly he shook his head. "No, no. You're mistaken. You have to be. This... this story can't possibly be true! How do you know this is the same prophesy that was given to the King? How do you know it is referring to the King’s scepter?! Damn you all for tricking me like this!" He turned to leave.

"You're not leaving," Keen said, taking a step towards him.

Merlynn held her back. "No, he's free to go. But listen to this first, Lord, before you leave. The Royal Scepter has only glowed in the hands of those from House Redax. You have Redax blood in your veins. And the prophesy says that the scepter will go to bastard hands.... your hands, Lord Lornon. You may be the gods' chosen ruler of all Midlothia. We are going to Gideon to steal the scepter, and with the gods behind us, we will succeed. And once we have done so, we will try to find you again, wherever you may be. For now, however, we’ll stay here, if you soon decide to change your mind."

"You're touched," Lornon spat. "I'll see you all in Death's dungeon!" He shook his head and stalked off angrily, disappearing quickly into the darkening wilds.

"What do we do now?" Keen asked after he was gone.

"We stay here for a while," Merlynn smiled. "Don't worry, Keen. I suspect that he will come back after his anger has cooled. And if not, Wraith and Markisander have demonstrated exceptional ability in tracking. We will find him again and offer him a second chance."

Lornon returned before the moon rose.

He offered no apologies for leaving, nor any explanation for returning save one. He took Jewel’s hand and kissed it, reverently. "The King has ordered my death. Of that, I am certain. If my assistance can help bring about his downfall, gladly will I help you, Princess."




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