Lady, Warrior, Healer, Thief

By Leslie Ann Miller

Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story.



CHAPTER 9: ESCAPE FROM GIDEON CITY

When they reached the temple stables, a healer was waiting for them and ushered them inside. Jewels dismounted and collapsed, practically sobbing, in the hay.

"What is wrong?" Wraith asked, concerned, putting a hand on her half-sister's arm.

Jewels hid her face in her hands and shook her head.

"Come, let us find the others," Wraith suggested, taking the girl's arm.

The healer glanced at them curiously as she led their horse to a stall.

Wraith led her half sister to the door and out into the courtyard.

"I can't face them," Jewels shook her head, stopping half way to the entrance to main temple.

"You have nothing to fear," Wraith said, hoping it was true. She did not know how the humans would react to the fact that Jewels was apparently their god-chosen ruler. It had been many human generations since they'd had a ruling queen if what she remembered from her lessons was correct.

Any reply that Jewels was going to make was cut off by their companions and Priestess Jilane spilling out the door of the main temple to meet them in the courtyard.

"Did you get it?" Lornon asked as the others crowded around.

Jewels burst into tears.

"Jewels, what is it?" Merlynn asked, worried. "Are you hurt?"

Jewels shook her head silently, still sobbing.

Keen looked at Wraith. "What happened?" she demanded. "Do you have the scepter?"

Wraith nodded, and took the bag from Jewel's shaking shoulder. She reached in and pulled out the scepter.

The others gasped as the diamond flashed in the starlight.

Wraith held it out to Jewels.

"I don't want it!" she sobbed.

Lornon realized something was wrong. "What's going on?" he asked, his voice heavy with suppressed emotion.

"Oh Lornon," Jewels cried, "I'm so sorry! I'm s-so sorry!"

Jilane stepped forward and took Jewels' hands in her own. "Princess Elianna," she said sternly, "You must tell us what is the matter."

Jewels looked at the Priestess desperately, tears streaming down her face behind her spectacles. "Oh please, p-priestess, help me! I don't want this! I d-don't want it!"

"Want what, Elianna?"

Jewels glanced at the scepter in Wraith's outstretched hands like it was a vision of her death. Yet despite it all, she reached out a shaking hand and touched the smooth silver of its handle.

The diamond burst into blue white flame.

Wraith stepped backwards, surprised and blinded by the fierce light, and Jewels' fingers slipped from the haft. The light flickered out.

"Mother of Trees," Jilane and Merlynn said in unison.

Lornon gave a harsh, bitter laugh. "So my Lady, it seems you are to be my queen after all."

Jewels looked up at him miserably. "Oh Lornon! I don't want it! I d-don't! It must be some m-mistake! It has to be some trick! It can't possibly be t-true!"

"The diamond doesn't lie, Princess," Jilane said softly. "Somehow you must find the strength to bear this burden."

"Oh, b-b-but that's j-just it!" Jewels stammered. "I d-don't... I c-can't... You d-don't know me! I'm a f-fool! I c-can't even t-talk! I d-don't know the least thing about b-being anything except s-somebody's ob-biedient wife!"

Jilane smiled. "You've been taught more than you know, Princess. You know how to handle servants well enough. I've seen you do it for years. You've been taught how to manage a large household, and you've done very well in your mother's absence. A kingdom is not so different. You are young, Elianna, and those skills you lack will come with time and maturity. Right now, however, you must try to be courageous, so that we may best decide how to help you."

Jewels sniffed, and stared at the Priestess in bewilderment.

Keen cleared her throat. "She's right, your highness."

Jewels scowled, lifting her glasses to wipe the tears from her eyes and face. "The king's g-guards are searching for us. We did not escape und-detected. What shall we do n-next?"

"The temple is safe," Merlynn said, "the law of sanctuary will protect us here."

"But for how long?" Jilane said thoughtfully, beginning to pace slowly, deep in thought.

"Who are our allies?" Keen said. "Who wants most to overthrow the crown?"

"Most of the dukes and barons," Lornon said. "Though none of them will admit it, of course."

"Then we approach them and seek their help," Merlynn said.

"Too risky," Jilane said, shaking her head. "Elianna is too much of an unknown and unexpected factor to show up on their doorstep asking for support. King Rukert will try to squelch any rebellion quickly and effectively. The dukes know this. Not one of them has an army to match the Crown's, save perhaps Duke Blackmace, and we cannot trust him. If this is to work, we will need the cooperation of at least two of the dukes and the barons loyal to them. And none of them will be over eager to support the claim of an untried young woman, scepter or no scepter."

"Duke Redax will support her claim," Lornon said with certainty.

"It is likely true," Jilane said slowly. "But the King knows this. The roads to Redax castle will surely be guarded closely; for that is the route he will expect the scepter to travel. Even assuming Elianna could safely reach his castle, who else would join with her?"

"Pikeman, perhaps," Keen said. "He hates the King."

"But he is no friend of Duke Redax, either," Markisander pointed out. "He is unlikely to send an army to support Elianna if Duke Bower has not committed his troops to the same cause. Otherwise his own lands would be too vulnerable."

"I need time to make alliances," Elianna said quietly, swallowing. "I cannot stay here in Gideon, where Slanger will surely find me. Sanctuary or not, I will not be safe, will I?" She looked at Jilane for confirmation.

"No," Jilane said sadly. "If Slanger knew you were here, I have no doubt he would find some way to get you out, sanctuary or not. He has no fear of the Lady's wrath.

Elianna nodded. "And I cannot go to my grandfather and bring the King's army down upon him unless he is assured of help. So… I have no place to go…"

"West," the Priestess said. "You can go west. My western counterpart, Priestess Helinsor, can provide you sanctuary at the temple in Bluevale on the Crystal. From there, you'll have time to make the alliances you'll need, and the safety offered by the Western army."

Keen frowned. "Assuming, of course, that King Keller doesn't simply turn her back over to King Rukert."

"There is no need for King Keller to find out she is there," Jilane said. "Helinsor will protect Elianna if King Keller is unlikely to support her cause."

Keen nodded. "And Rukert wouldn't dare attack this close to winter. Even if he suspected the scepter went west, he would have to wait until spring to try to get it back by force. And the Westerners are unlikely to take kindly to an invasion by an Eastern army."

"Elianna must go west, then," Merlynn said, agreeing. "But who shall go, and by what route?"

"The city gates will be guarded closely," Jilane said. "And the temple, too, no doubt. I suggest you go by river. One of our supply barges is equipped with… how shall I say this? A shallow hidden compartment large enough for one or two people and minimal supplies."

Markisander laughed. "A smuggling hole? The Lady's healers have a barge with a smuggling hole? Those are illegal, you know."

Jilane had the good grace to blush. "The Lady's work is not always bound by mortal laws. You will not be the first people requesting our sanctuary who we have smuggled out of Gideon. And as fortune would have it, the barge is scheduled to leave tomorrow on its usual route. It should not attract the attention of a thorough search. However, I fear not all of you should go."

"Why not?" Merlynn asked.

"The barges normally have two handlers. Rarely, they have other passengers, and then, usually a single healer, perhaps two. Even if two of you fit in the smuggling hole, a crowd on deck will bring attention."

"I can serve as one of the handlers," Markisander said. "I used to work the river with my father as a boy. That would leave three others if you count two in the hole."

Lornon, who had been looking thoughtful during this discussion, shook his head. "I should stay here," he said. "I know nothing of the handling of barges, and someone must approach Duke Redax with this news. If the healers are under suspicion by Slanger, I am the most likely candidate."

"But, you're a wanted man!" Merlynn protested. "You aren't safe here. You must go west with us."

"The Duke is my grandfather," Lornon said, "and he supports his bloodline fiercely. There are so few of us left. Had I known why the King wanted me dead, I would have gone to him in the first place. If I can reach him safely, I believe he will protect me. And he will gather the support of the Dukes and Barons."

Markisander nodded. "There's no reason for the King's men to be looking for you on the road to Redax Castle. It should be well known by now that you fled west. Bounty hunters will be looking for you in the mountains and at the borders. A simple disguise should suffice. If you are searched on the road, they will only be looking for the scepter."

"Then it's agreed," Jilane nodded. "Elianna and Wraith will be transported in the smuggling hole. Markisander shall serve as a handler, Merlynn will attract no attention as a healer, and Keen…"

"Dress me as a healer," the warrior said. "I've watched Merlynn long enough to pass the inspection of any guards we might encounter."

"Very well," Jilane said. "I think the goddess will understand the need."

Keen rolled her eyes and looked at Merlynn. "And I'll trust in you to pray for my forgiveness, my friend."

Merlynn grinned, but Jilane frowned.

"These are serious matters," the Priestess said. "Come, all of you, follow me." The Priestess led the somber procession into the main garden, stopping in front of the ancient oak. She faced them, taking the scepter from Wraith's hands.

"This scepter was forged in the gods' hall by Anar himself, and it was given to King Turun Redax over five hundred years ago by the gods to show their favor of his leadership. This night, it has been shown that their favor now graces Princess Elianna, who, by their will, will someday be Queen. It is not lightly that I entrust this scepter, or the Princess, to you who stand here now, without your proof of loyalty. The fate of two kingdoms rests in her hands." She looked meaningfully at Elianna and held the scepter out.

Elianna understood the Priestess's intention, but she didn't like it. Wraith could sense the conflict inside her… fear of insulting the friends who had already come so far with her warred with the need to step into a role that was not her choice, and yet had been thrust upon her by the gods themselves.

"Take it," Jilane said softly. "You must do this. They must do this."

Elianna took the scepter, and all present shaded their eyes as the diamond exploded in light, scattering the shadows of the garden.

Keen stepped forward without hesitation and kneeled in front of the princess. She took the bottom of the scepter in a firm grip. "I swear, with the Lady as my witness, that I will protect you and your secret with my very life. By my honor, by my ax, I will serve you and your cause until the day I die. May the gods strike me down if I fail to honor this oath."

"The g-gods have heard your oath," Elianna whispered, and a tear traced the length of her cheek, glistening in the light of the scepter. "Rise and t-take your place as c-commander of my p-personal guard."

Lornon was the next to step forward. He kissed the shining diamond, then knelt, keeping his fingers touching the metal of the scepter. "I have little to offer you, Princess, other than my loyalty, my service, and my life. Those you have. So I swear, with the Lady as my witness."

"Rise, brother," Elianna said. "I will n-need able administrators when I am Queen. You will have your choice of p-positions and titles."

Lornon grinned, then bowed with a flourish.

Merlynn knelt in front of the Princess, but she did not touch the scepter. She looked up into Elianna's face with a smile. "As a healer, my vows are, and always will be, to serve the Lady first. But with Her as witness, I swear to help and heal you in times of need. I offer my counsel freely, and I will never knowingly do anything to cause you harm or hurt. I will go with you on this journey, and I will protect your life with my own."

"Rise, then, c-counselor," Elianna smiled. She hugged Merlynn. "I would be lost without you," she whispered in the healer's ear.

Elianna turned to Markisander next. He shifted on his feet uncomfortably before finally kneeling in front of her. "I've never done anything like this before," he said apologetically.

"You d-don't have to…" Elianna began.

He shook his head. "No. No, Princess. It's just…" He grinned lopsidedly. "It's hard to believe I'm here, being a part of this. I never thought I'd play a role in something so important, like. I've had to swear oaths of loyalty before; most mercenaries are used to it, but nothing like this." He put his hands on the scepter. "Princess, you can count on me. I am your loyal servant. All that I am is now yours to command. With the Lady as my witness, I will serve you and your cause until the day I die. May the gods strike me down if I fail to honor this oath."

"You are m-more than my servant, Markisander," Elianna said, motioning him to rise. "You are m-my friend. I will need a Royal Huntsman and Master Tracker when I am Queen. The job will be yours, if you l-like."

"I would like that a great deal, your highness," Markisander said with a smile, bowing.

Elianna then turned to Wraith. "I have heard you refuse t-to swear an oath to gods once before, so I will not ask it of you now." She smiled wryly and took Wraith's hand in her own. "But I would still ask for your help and c-company on this dangerous quest, sister."

Wraith looked at her hand held by Elianna's. Human, blackelf. Two daughters of royalty, bound by blood and a common cause. She realized that because of Elianna, her life now had meaning beyond the simple act of living. "Our fates are bound together," she said slowly, knowing the truth of her words even as she spoke them. "Where you go, I go."

Elianna nodded. "And I will follow you, when you ask," she said.

Wraith held her breath, wondering if Elianna meant to say those words, half expecting someone to protest.

Elianna squeezed her hand. "I will follow you," she repeated.

So be it, said a voice whispered on a sudden wind through the leaves of the tree. I am witness to your oaths.

"The Goddess has spoken," the Priestess said, even as Keen, Mar, and Lornon looked on in astonishment. "Break your vows to Princess Elianna at your own peril. Now, it is time to prepare for your journeys. You will have time to rest after you have safely escaped the city."

***********

Duke Blackmace found his brother eating breakfast with Slanger the next morning. The Wizard had a bandage around his head and his face was pale, but his eyes burned with a black fury.

King Rukert looked up as his brother bowed. "Well, did you find them?" he snapped.

The Duke shook his head. "I'm afraid not, your majesty. It seems they have disappeared."

"Disappeared?!" Rukert shouted. "Disappeared?! The entire Royal Guard searching all the night and they still disappeared?!"

"Yes, your majesty. I came to ask the assistance of your Wizard. Perhaps he can help us to locate them."

Slanger looked pained.

Rukert laughed harshly. "Our Wizard is unable to perform his duties for the moment," he said.

Slanger scowled. "I tell you it's impossible to cast spells with a fractured skull. The pain destroys the needed concentration."

"Have you not sent for a healer?" Duke Blackmace asked in surprise.

Rukert laughed again. "Those witches! The High Priestess politely declined my invitation to come to the castle and forbid her cronies from coming as well. She said the Lady would not allow her powers to be used on so vile a creature as our Slanger here." He looked at Slanger with a grin. "Can you imagine that? I've never heard of a healer denying a Royal request before. You know," he continued, glancing at the Duke, "I almost feel flattered to have such a unique individual as my personal advisor."

Duke Blackmace watched as the muscles in Slanger's jaw clenched and unclenched. His son was right. Slanger was getting dangerous. What a pity the assassin hadn't killed him while he had the chance.

"The Priestess is working with your enemies, Majesty," Slanger said with poorly masked hostility. He looked at the Duke. "Did you search the Temples for the thieves?"

The Duke shook his head. "You know as well as I that the Temples are sacred. However, one of the Priestesses told my guards that no thieves had asked for sanctuary there."

"I wouldn't believe them, Majesty," Slanger said. "Jilane is hiding them right beneath your nose! She can twist words with the best serpents. You must act now before she helps some upstart claim your throne and start a rebellion! It's her blasted tree, afterall, that started this whole affair. The healers are your enemies! It is time to punish them!"

The king took a sip of wine from his goblet. "The Lady's priestesses are not known to lie. And even if they did, I dare not risk the Lady's wrath so soon. I have men watching the Temple. If the theives are there, and they try to escape, they will be caught. Perhaps I can hire that wizard who Pikeman patrons to help ferret them out...."

"Don't be foolish," Slanger said. "Any one of the Dukes could be behind this. You can't trust any of their wizards. You can't even trust the unaligned wizards... any one of them could be spies. You can't trust anyone."

Rukert's eyes narrowed. "Yes, you're right, Slanger. I sometimes wonder if I can even trust you. You let them escape last night."

"What do expect me to do against Brengarian assassins? I hit one with the full blast of a lightning bolt, and yet he apparently got up and ran away. Either that or his companions spirited his dead body away with them. It is lucky that their mission was to steal, not kill, or we both might be dead right now. As it is, you can see for yourself that I've paid the price for trying to stop them."

"Indeed," the king said smoothly. He looked at the Duke. "Slanger has sacrificed much on my behalf, hasn't he brother?"

Duke Blackmace nodded. "We are all deeply indebted for his services."

Slanger seethed. "Spare me your sarcasm, Grace." He bowed to the king and excused himself, giving the Duke a look of pure hatred as he passed.

Rukert chuckled. "You never did get along with my Wizard, did you?" he asked.

"You know how I feel about his breed, majesty."

The king brushed the comment aside with a wave. "Yes yes... some things are best left undisturbed... that sort of thing." He looked at the Duke slyly. "But Slanger has his uses. He has a plan, dear brother, to keep our House in power."

"Oh?" the Duke asked curiously.

"Indeed," Rukert grinned. "It has tremedous potential, I think. Potential to change the course of history and make our House invincible. Indeed it is true, brother. But I need a trusted ally to carry it out."

The Duke gritted his teeth. "And who might that be, majesty?"

"As if you didn't know, brother! You are going to West-mine with all the Swords you can muster. Slanger will go with you."

"West-mine!" the Duke said in surprise. "Why West-mine? You need all the men you can gather to support you here in Gideon!"

"Ah," the King said, tapping the table with his nails. "Under normal circumstances I might agree with you. But if things go well in West-mine, I will not need to worry about any rebellion... or anything else for that matter. And in the meantime Gideon City can resist any force that can be raised in the time it will take you to reach the mines and accomplish your goal."

The Duke felt his blood chill. "What is my goal, majesty?" he asked quietly.

Rukert smiled. "Slanger has stolen the key to the Banished God's prison. I want you to free him."

"What?"

Rukert stood up and faced his brother. "You heard me. You're to take your men to the mines to free the Banished God. The miners have been steadily working towards it for the past seventeen years. Only the blackelves stand in our way now. I want you to take your men to provide armed support for Slanger. With a wizard's help you should be able to defeat them."

Duke Blackmace blanched. "You're mad."

The king grinned. "Genius is often mistaken for madness."

The Duke did not reply.

Rukert sighed. "I was afraid you might resist me in this, brother. So when your son Rodert reported to me this morning, I took the liberty of having him escorted into my dungeon along with his six brothers. They will, of course, be released when the Banished One has been freed and Slanger has been killed afterwards. You see, as my wizard suggested, I don't trust anyone. Not even you. Although I hope you see that this is the only way to prevent the massacre of our Household. Our lives depend on it. I'm doing this for our own good, brother, and I hope you won't betray me. Rodert is shaping up to be a fine heir to your coronet."

*********

Duke Blackmace threw down his sword belt in the Temple entry and strode furiously into the garden. "Priestess!" he shouted. "Jilane!"

"Yes, your Grace?" she asked pleasantly, appearing from the main temple building, almost as if she had been waiting for him.

"Is she here?!" he demanded.

"Who, your Grace?" Jilane asked pleasantly.

"Elianna. I must speak with her and whoever she's working for."

"Ah," Jilane said slowly, turning towards the tree.

"Well?" he asked impatiently.

"I'm afraid she is not here, your Grace."

The Duke grabbed her shoulder and turned her to face him. He ignored the sudden indignation and anger which flared in her eyes. "You must tell me everything you know. What has the Lady told you? Why did you deny Slanger healing? Have you seen Elianna? Have you heard anything about her?"

"Why should I tell you anything?" Jilane asked pointedly. "I understand you tried to have her drowned like an unwanted dog."

The Duke grimaced. "I regret that, Priestess. More than you will ever know. But I did everything in my power to ensure she escaped after stealing the royal scepter last night. I think that deserves some sort of reply to my questions."

"What makes you think that I know anything at all?" Jilane asked.

"Because you refused to treat Slanger. And you're hedging my questions. If you knew nothing you would have told me so."

Jilane smiled. "Perhaps, perhaps not. I do what suits my needs, your Grace. What do you have to offer in exchange for this information? Why do you need it? "

He inhaled deeply. Impatience would get nowhere with the Priestess. Nor would dishonesty. "My brother is mad, Priestess, and I wish to stop him before he does something rash that we all will regret. Unfortunately, he is holding my sons hostage to prevent me from moving against him. I need to know who has the scepter and what they intend to do with it so I can find a way to stop my brother and save my sons."

"Perhaps we should sit down," Jilane suggested, walking to a long stone bench at the other end of the garden.

The Duke did not feel like sitting at all, but he controled his impatience and sat down beside her.

"Now," Jilane said slowly, "you must tell me what is going through your brother's mind."

"I already told you," the Duke said, "he's holding my sons hostage."

"Yes, but you didn't mention why," Jilane smiled.

"Because he's mad!"

"I wonder," Jilane said with a sigh. "I wish it were so simple. Is Slanger mad as well, do you think?"

The Duke scowled, suddenly suspicious that the Priestess knew far more about what was going on than he had even supposed. "What has the wind told you, Lady?" he asked.

"Only that we should beware of Slanger," she said almost reluctantly. "But there are other signs, Duke Blackmace. Did you know that mount Dragonfire has errupted?"

The Duke didn't answer.

"No," Jilane said, "I see from your face that you did not. And now the scepter is in the hands of the rightful ruler of Midlothia...`the scepter has gone to bastard hands' as the prophesy predicted, and the scepter shines in those hands. We stand at the crossroads of our future, Duke Blackmace. Which future do you choose? That represented by your brother and his Wizard, which clearly you are unhappy with, or an unknown bastards', frought with uncertainty, and, perhaps, Gods forbid, a long civil war?"

"I must think of my sons," the Duke said grimly. "The choice is not as simple as you portray. I do not know this bastard who you say is the rightful ruler... Will I not support him at the cost of my own life? And the King is my brother, we are bound by blood. I am loyal to my House, Priestess, to my sons."

"Your House," Jilane said, "Blackmace blood. Of which the bastard is. Or have you forgotten that the rightful ruler is your brother's child? You either support your brother, or you support the Gods and their chosen heir, also of Blackmace blood. Who do you choose?"

"I support myself and my sons!" the Duke repeated stubbornly, standing.

Jilane stood as well. "And what about your step-daughter, your blood niece?" she asked. "What about Elianna?"

"What about her?!" the Duke asked, running his hand through his grey hair. "I pray that she escapes. And I wish her long life and good health."

"Will you fight for her cause?"

"What cause? Do you mean the bastard? I'll fight for the lesser of evils, Priestess, whatever that may be."

"Elianna is the bastard, Duke Blackmace. The scepter shines in her hands. She is the rightful ruler of Midlothia."

Duke Blackmace stared at Jilane and wondered if she was as mad as his brother. "What?" he asked.

"You heard me quite well, your Grace. Your step-daughter is the Gods' chosen ruler of Midlothia."

"How do you know?" he demanded.

"She came here last night with her companions after they'd stolen the scepter. I saw it burning in her hands with my own eyes, and the scepter doesn't lie." The Priestess smiled. "I assure you that it was as much a surprise to Elianna as it was to everyone else."

The Duke took a deep breath. It was almost too much to believe!

Jilane sat back down gracefully and crossed her hands in her lap, regarding him with kind eyes. "She needs your help, Duke Blackmace. Midlothia needs your help. Together we must find a way to stop Slanger from freeing the Banished God, and then to put your step-daughter on her rightful throne."

"I must think this through," the Duke said heavily, turning to leave. Suddenly he felt very, very old.

"No," Jilane said, suddenly standing in front of him. "I will not let you leave until I know where you stand -- with the Gods or against them."

"I would be a fool to go against the Gods, now wouldn't I, Priestess?"

"Yes, you would," she agreed. "But that rarely stops most people."

The Duke smiled despite himself and regarded her seriously for a moment. "I will do nothing to jeopardize the lives of my sons," he said. "But I will do everything in my power to help Elianna and prevent Slanger from freeing the Banished One."

Jilane smiled. "And the Lady will be with you, Duke Blackmace."

He bowed, slowly. "Where is Elianna, and what is she planning to do?"

"They left the city last night. I was afraid Slanger would have the temple searched or raized before they could escape, so I would not let them stay here," she answered. "They've gone West, to seek shelter in the Lady's High Temple there. Perhaps the High Priestess in Bluevale on Crystal will be able to persuade their king to grant them political protection. As you well know, she would find little immediate support from the Dukes and Barons here in the East, and I had no time to discover where you stood. Of course, since you'd tried to have her killed once already, I did not have high hopes you would back her claim..."

"West... West..... even if they make it to the West, there's little guarantee they'll find protection. I doubt King Keller will take too kindly to anyone claiming the rightful rulership of his kingdom."

"True, but at least they'll find help in the Temple there. The new King is not likely to take kindly to Easterners making demands of his Lady's Temple."

The Duke nodded. Certainly, if they completed the journey, they would be safer there than in the East. At least for now. "Who is with her?"

"Several of Elianna's companions and supporters, and one of my healers. They swore oaths of protection in front of the Lady's tree last night before they left. They will die for her. Two are Swords. One had been given the quest to find the blackelf bastard."

"Gods above," the Duke swore. "I've heard of her. And she was foolish enough to stay in Gideon after taking a king's quest?"

"Oh no," Jilane said. "She and Elianna went into the tunnels. They even found the blackelf bastard. And the Redax bastard, Lornon. Three of your nieces and nephews, Duke Blackmace. They, too, accompany Elianna West. They returned from the Rift to steal the scepter for Lornon. But it was Elianna all along."

"Elianna was in the blackelf tunnels?" Somehow he simply could not picture the girl stumbling through the wilds of the Rift and into the blackelf tunnels beyond.

"Oh yes," she said. "Elianna is strong, your Grace. Stronger than any of us would have suspected."

"What about this Brengarian assassin? Is he with them, too?"

Jilane shook her head. "That's no assassin. That's the blackelf bastard. And yes, she is with them, too."

"She? A blackelf?! Are you mad, Priestess? Letting her run off with a creature like that?! With Rukert and Slanger after them?! What were you thinking!"

Jilane did not respond immediately. "Inner, Outer, West and East," she said. "The blackelves will be drawn into this affair one way or the other, Duke. Perhaps Elianna's vulnerability will work in her favor. My heart, at least, believes it."

"Your heart?" he scoffed. "What does your heart know of such things?"

"My heart knows nothing," she said. "My mind believes it knows much. And yet I choose to trust my heart -- it is from my heart that I receive the Lady's love and guidance. We are foolish beings, Duke, divided heart and mind. Knowledge belongs to the physical, tangible world, whereas love belongs to the abstract realm of gods. Where Slanger, and the Banished One, go astray, is in confusing one with the other. The mind sometimes tells us that happiness is control of the physical world: political power, wealth, land, servants. But true happiness can only be found when the heart is at peace: when the soul is at ease in the comfort of knowing it has done the ethically correct thing, or in having faith in the goodness of the gods. In loving. In joy. In trust. My heart told me that the West is where Elianna needed to go, with a blackelf sworn to protect her life, and, Duke Blackmace, gods willing, it will be. I must have faith in that."

"Gods willing," the Duke repeated. "It sounds neat and pretty from your lips, Priestess, but it has no reality in the world I live in."

"You are a man of honor, Duke Blackmace," Jilane said. "I know that it troubles your heart to betray your King and your brother. But you betrayed him once before -- for love, for Erandanti, your wife. And now you are called to do so again -- for Erandanti's daughter."

He scowled and stepped around her and headed for the outside arch. "This betrayal will be the King's death, Priestess. There is a difference."

Jilane watched him go without answering. "No," she whispered sadly when she knew he would not hear. "One betrayal led to the next, for it was from the first that Elianna was born, and all our fates were sealed." She sat down slowly on the stone bench and listened to the gentle breeze rustle the leaves in the old oak while the sunlight teased golden flower petals.

*********

"If you insist in pursuing this insanity, I insist upon taking my own troops," the Duke told his brother later that afternoon. The King was keeping business as usual, and it was time for his afternoon rest. The Duke found him lounging in the castle garden, legs stretched out and crossed in front of him, staring blankly at the sky. Although his brother was over a year older than himself, he looked at least ten years younger. The Duke often wondered if Slanger had something to do with that, but today he put the thought aside.

The King regarded his brother reproachfully. "I need the Blackmace Guards to defend Gideon. You will take Swords."

"Do you think mercenaries will fight in the tunnels against blackelves, majesty? Can you afford to pay them what they will demand to sacrifice their lives so rashly? It is one thing to pay Swords to fight other Swords. It is another to expect them to fight blackelves who have no concept of Sword Honor. My guards will do whatever I ask of them. Swords will not. Especially not at West-Mine. I must have my guards if you want this venture to succeed."

The King uncrossed his legs angrily, "Damn you, Rollin, can't you see I'm resting? We have mercenary Swords applenty in West-Mine even as we speak."

"Rogues, vandals, and prisoners sent to fight blackelves rather than face the executioner's ax. You call them Swords, but I certainly wouldn't. 'One year in the tunnels versus 10 in debters prison.' Not the kind of men who make disciplined troops. Desparate fighters, perhaps, but not good warriors. If you want me to do this, give me men I can trust, who will fight for me without question, without hesitation. Give me the Blackmace Guards."

The King growled in his throat. "I'll discuss it with Slanger this evening. Perhaps his head will be clearer then. Do you know? He actually suggested I attack the Lady's Temple."

The Duke did not respond.

His brother continued. "Which reminds me, Rollin, what did the Lady's Priestesses tell you this morning?"

Duke was prepared for the question. He knew the King's spies were watching the temple like hawks. "Jilane gave me her word that they were not there."

Rukert was impressed. "So you talked with the witch herself. Did she mention why she refuses to treat Slanger?"

"She says that the breezes have warned her against him."

The King laughed. "Yes, I'm not too surprised. Slanger tells me that the Lady and the Banished One never got along very well."

"And knowing this, you will still try to free the Banished One?" the Duke asked.

Rukert laughed again. "I'm surprised at you, brother. What has the Lady ever given me? What have I ever asked from her? Nothing! She has nothing to offer me but preaching and fair words. The Lady is weak, Rollin. `Peace, love, harmony, balance...' What nonsense. The Banished One is different. He wanted power, and went after it. It took all the gods combined to imprison him. Yes, yes indeed, the Banished One has much to offer me."

"What makes you believe that he will give you anything?"

"Oh, I don't," he shrugged. "Slanger believes he will, but I don't -- necessarily. But if the Banished One turns on me and the rest of the world, well, then there won't be much left for my bastard to rule, eh?" He laughed again.

The Duke could not suppress his anger. "So you do this even knowing the possible consequences?"

"Well, I have decided that I have nothing to lose from it. The Gods spite me, so I spite them back. If I cannot have my kingdom, no one will. I'd remember that if you consider turning against me, dear brother."

The Duke knew that he would get nothing more from his brother after that. He bowed, and left, cursing the gods for sending the prophesy that started this madness in his brother's mind.

He returned to his study and passed the afternoon writing two carefully worded letters to Dukes Pikeman and Bowman, and others to the lesser Barons. He bluntly explained his brother's plans to release the Banished One and told them that the scepter was in the hands of the bastard who was the rightful ruler. He did not tell them who that ruler was, nor did he ask for any specific action to be taken by them. It was enough that they know of his brother's plans, and that there was one ready to claim the throne should he be overthrown. It did not matter to the Duke if they believed him or not. It would make them even more suspicious of his brother and each other, and that was all he really wanted. If it stirred up trouble, so much the better.

It wasn't until after dinner and dark that he finally made up his mind to write Duke Redax. He was pouring wax to seal the letters to Pikeman and Bower when he noticed an orange glow warming the grey stone walls of his chamber. When he peered out the slit window overlooking the city, his face grew harsh in the light from the fire burning below in the city. When he turned again to his table, he sat down slowly and dipped his quill into the inkwell with firm resolution:

Unto His Grace, Duke Shattok Redax, does Duke Rollin Blackmace send greetings!

It is with great difficulty that I write to you today, and while you read this I would ask that you not think of me as your long-standing enemy, as I know you do, but rather as your son-in-law, which I know you would rather not. Today, I write as your son-in-law and as a member of your family and ancient household.

As I write, the Lady's Temple in Gideon burns to the ground. I know not what has become of the healers and the priestesses, but, unlike the gardens and the ancient oak, I pray that they escaped the attack.

Yes, I say attack. I know who has caused this attrocity, and I do not think that I need to tell you his name. King Rukert is mad, Duke Redax, and I am prepared to do whatever is necessary to stop him from destroying us all.

I exagerate, you think, and wonder what I am scheming. But I assure you that I do neither, or rather, that my only schemes are ones to stop my brother and Slanger from bringing destruction on all Midlothia.

The royal scepter has been stolen, and the Lady's High Priestess, Jilane the Grey, has given me her word that she has seen it glowing in the hands of the rightful ruler, who, true to the prophesy, is one of King Rukert's bastard children.

The rightful ruler of Midlothia, your Grace, is your granddaughter, Elianna.

I am certain this news will surprise you as much as it did myself, and yet I swear upon my honor that it is the truth. I doubt not Jilane's word. It is clear to me now that the gods have always intended the rulers of Midlothia to come from the Redax line, and I am prepared to support the daughter of my beloved wife Erandanti, your daughter, against the claims of my own brother.

I would that it were so simple, however. Elianna has fled West to the sanctuary of the Lady's temple in Bluevale on Crystal with the scepter. King Rukert has my sons in his dungeon, threatening to execute them if I move against him.

But that is not all. The King and Slanger have devised a plot: to free the Banished One in exchange for His help in keeping House Blackmace in power. You laugh, I fear, knowing the impossibility and madness of such a plan... and yet, they clearly believe it can be done -- and without excessive difficulty. I have been given orders to march to West-Mine with my guards and Slanger to carry out the deed. I have no intention of freeing the Banished One, and yet I will go to West-Mine to stall the execution of my sons.

I ask you now to support your Granddaughter's claim; the ancient God-given claim of your Household. I ask you to gather your Swords and your Guard to begin a rebellion. I know that you have friends amongst the other Dukes and Barons. Now is the time for you to act. We must bring down King Rukert before it is too late for us all.

Signed,

Duke Rollin Blackmace

It would be tricky to find messengers trustworthy enough to deliver them. If any of the letters fell into his brother's hands, he would surely be executed immediately, his sons with him. Slanger would normally be watching him closely, at least Slanger's spies would, and anyone he contacted would likely be followed. But there would be riots in the streets tonight... the burning of the Lady's Temple would surely put the city into panic and uproar. That would work in his favor. While Slanger and the King did not think kindly of the healers, the common folk most certainly did. He wondered if his brother had even considered how angry and upset they would be, and how that anger might delay his own departure for West-Mine. In that sense, too, the burning of the Temple would work in his favor. Hastily he donned his mail shirt, sword, and cloak, and proceeded unescorted to the chaos of the city streets below.


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