Chapter 1 – Capture and Escape (rough and unedited)
The armored riders thundered past the hay field, their horses’ hooves kicking a trail of orange dust into the cool morning air. Andric, who was watching from the timber fence, threw down his pitchfork and ran toward his master’s house across the fields. His sunhat flew off and his golden hair waved behind him like a flame. The farmhands only watched him with blank stares and open mouths- they were good people, but they would be little help, if help were needed.
An elf rode at the head of the column. Not that Andric had ever seen an elf, but the man was very tall, with a narrow face, and ears that came to a point. His coal-dark eyes were slanted and too large for his face, and his skin was smooth and pale, like a dead man’s skin. He was garbed in black robes, and rode a wild-eyed beast of a horse that dwarfed even Andric’s thick plough horses.
The dozen or so men following him were just as terrible – all clad in black with spiked shields buckled to left arms, swords lashed to their backs, and short steel-tipped lances butted to a stirrup, all tilted to the same angle. Their horses, dark and nearly as massive as the elf’s, galloped with rippling power, muscles sweating beneath heavy black barding. If they were elves too, he could not guess, for they wore war helmets with the grilled visors lowered.
Andric leapt a low stone sheep wall, then bounded the old creek with one jump. His booted feet sank into the soft soil with a thump. The house was nearer, he could see its high thatched roof and mortared stone walls, but the riders would reach it first. Then what? Who were they? A knot in his stomach said that they had something to do with the column of black smoke he had just seen rising from Burgund on the horizon. They were certainly not the Duke ‘s men with their white and blue livery over aged and rather unpolished armor.
He ran on, leaping low fences and stutter stepping across fresh tilled furrows in the soil. It was planting time, thus the extra hands in the fields. The rains would be here soon, if they came this year. It was the fourth year of drought, and only irrigation kept fields growing at all. He had no time for trouble. A few penned bison casually watched him sprint by.
Andric could see the house clearly now through a row of tall pines. The riders were there, wrapped in a dusty cloud. Several had dismounted. The elf, or whatever he was, was still in his saddle and motioning with his hands. Then Andric saw Master Girkin, on his knees in the dust, a black armored soldier at his side. On his knees?
The soldier drew his sword and Andric’s heart leapt to his throat. His feet pounded and his lungs burned. The soldier raised the blade high, and Andric guessed what was about to happen, and he knew he would not reach is Master in time.
Andric let the Voice fill him, rising from the Earth through his center, and sent it out with as much power as he could summon. “Stop!” The word rippled out like an invisible arrow, shuddering the pine branches between them, and struck the soldier with a solid clap, halting him in mid stroke. All the dark eyes turned Andric’s way as the soldier shook his head to clear it, and raised the sword again, bringing it down in a swift silver arc.
But Andric was there, and he leaped over Girkin to slam the soldier to the ground with his shoulder. He rolled to his feet, snatched the man’s fallen blade, and bounded like a cat to stand between his master and the other soldiers, his chest heaving and eyes wild. For a moment, a brief moment, they only stared in amazement at the tall, sallow farmboy hefting a war sword in raging defiance. He shifted his large green eyes from one black armored soldier to another. “Come on!” He roared. “Can you only fight old men on their knees?”
One of the mounted soldiers laughed and dismounted, then leaned his lance on his steed and drew the broadsword from his back. “A young lion, this one.” The others followed suit and formed an arch of steel around Andric and his master. One stepped forward, sword raised, and Andric readied for the attack.
“Hold.” The elf, still mounted upon his black horse spoke quietly, but the soldiers froze with no hesitation and lowered their weapons. All save the one Andric had knocked down, who pushed to his feet and was drawing a wicked curved dagger. The man’s eyes burned with rage as he charged, the oiled blade slashing, yet as Andric crouched to meet the onslaught, the man stopped frozen in mid stride; a look of realization and fear twisted onto his face. Andric turned his gaze to the elf who was now dismounting. A Mage.
“Keep your head, lad.” Girkin was still on his knees, his fine blue breeches and embroidered silk shirt rumpled and dirt smeared, and his long snowy hair and beard now gray with grime. From the neck down he was just as rigid as the frozen soldier with dagger still extended in mid-strike. Andric felt a tinge of relief hearing his Master’s voice. Surely Girkin was fooling with these soldiers, ready at an instant evoke Ayana with his Voice, and crush them into a pile of burnt metal. But the old man did nothing and seemed just that, a withered old man. Where was the quiet power in those clear blue eyes?
Andric wished for the first time in his life that he had really tried to learn, tried to unlock the power Girkin told him he could have. Maybe then he could have helped, could have stopped these people. Andric’s eyes darted to the open front door of the large wooden house. Erda was laying sprawled in the threshold, a trickle of blood leaking from her mouth. Every muscle in his body wanted to run to her, but that would mean leaving Girkin. The old woman was as close to a mother as Andric had in his life. He kept his eyes on her another moment looking for a breath.
“This one is dangerous.” Girkin said in a low voice. “Keep your head and live.” He emphasized each word.
Erda breathed – she yet lived. He turned as the soldiers parted for the elf mage – for that must be what he was, to have Girkin bound up so – and he hefted the sword again. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The elf’s mouth twitched into a cold grin. He was a bit taller than Andric, a full head taller than any of the soldiers, yet he managed to look down his nose in a way that elevated him even more. His narrow head was spiked with oiled black hair and only a touch of gray at the temples marked him of a greater age than he appeared. When he spoke it was as if reeds were talking, at once musical and grating, yet his words were not a human language. Andric knew the sound, for Girkin had taught him some of those words. He called it Mage Chant, or the Language of Power, known only to mages who had trained in the Tower of Elder. As quickly as the chant had begun, it ended, and the elf made a simple arching motion with one hand. The rigid soldier beside Andric gurgled and fell to the ground quivering. Smoke curled from his mouth, nose and ears.
The elf casually turned his attention to Andric. “Were your grandparents elves young man? It is plain in your features.”
Thoughts spun through Andric’s head like a whirlwind through a grain field. “Master Girkin is my father! And if you hurt him, I’ll swear on the God’s I’ll kill you!” He spat the words out.
The elf smiled. “Hm… Hardly.”
“What do you want?” Andric was shaken, the sword above his head less firm.
“You interest me, boy, and your… master.” He turned on his heels with a sneer and strode away between his men. “Take them. Search the house… then burn it.” The command was casual, off handed.
“No – “ Andric felt his words choke in his own throat as his body became rigid, held by an invisible force that crushed in on him from all directions. One of the soldiers jerked the sword from his stiff hand and forced his arms behind his back. Another soldier tied his wrists and ankles, then the two of them tossed him roughly across the back of a horse. He could see Girkin receiving much the same treatment. He could also hear soldiers crashing through the house. What were they searching for? Something from Girkin’s study? There were a few artifacts there, but unless the old Mage was hiding things from him, there was nothing of serious value. Andric’s thoughts were confirmed when a soldier returned from inside the house.
“We found nothing Lord Eludros. A few notes, a journal, several scrolls.”
There was a pause and the sounds of pages turning. “Bring these.” The elf said. “Burn it.”
No! Andric screamed inside his skull, but his mouth uttered not a word. This was his home, his life, his family.
From the corners of his eyes, Andric could see one of soldiers fire a torch. The other soldiers lit torches from the first and began hurling them through windows and the open doorway. Someone inside screamed as flames climbed the walls, and smoke poured from the windows. Andric could feel the heat on his face and neck. No! Blasted power, No! Blackness engulfed him.
Andric groaned when consciousness reluctantly returned. He was draped over a horse on his stomach, bouncing like a sack of potatoes. By the Gods it had not been some awful dream! Squinting through his watering eyes, he could see little of the surrounding countryside, though he knew precisely where he was, for this had been his home and the roads he had traveled for all of his nineteen years. The forest around him was as familiar as his own farm yard. This is where he learned to hunt with bow and sling, and played war games with his friends until dinner bells called him home. Erda was insistent on several things all his life, being present at mealtimes, and eating what she put on your plate, even if it was turnips. Not even Master Girkin could wriggle away from one of Erda’s stern lectures about mealtime and structure being the foundation for a good honest life.
Now his foundations were shattered, all his life of work and play horribly misdirected, an illusion of peaceful happiness, a lie leading to this insane unexplainable disaster. One minute he was slinging hay and singing a tune about trolloping with an Elven maid – not that he’d ever trolloped with a maid of any sort before – the next minute he’s hog tied and off to some dungeon or horrible death.
Andric tested the chords that bound his wrists and ankles, but they were strong and would not yield. He tried to lift his head, but his neck was too weak, and kicking his feet only brought a rough punch to his ribs from a soldier who was obviously watching him. He could make no sound from his mouth to call for help, though he knew there would be nobody for half a league to hear him, even if they could help against a dozen soldiers like these. Drake was good with his sword… as good as he, but with no armor he’d be butchered bison in no time. Gabrella might do better if she could sneak in with her knives, she was amazing with those knives, but then there’s the elf Mage, Eludros… Andric’s gut knotted and he clenched his jaw. Eludros, whoever he was, would pay for this. Yet that kind of power, enough to bring Girkin to his knees, was incomprehensible. Girkin who could call lightning from the sky and turn metal to fire was somehow powerless against this Elf. His master was the only mage he had ever seen, yet to be trained in the Tower of Elder, and made a Duke ‘s court mage he had to be of some power. It froze his stomach to know that Girkin could be broken so easily. And why? For the Light’s sake why? If only I had done my lessons… I could have helped.
When the column finally halted, they had reached the edge of the forest near the fortress and surrounding town. He could hear more horses galloping toward them. The smell of smoke came to Andric’s nose but he could not twist his head enough to see what was burning. He suspected it was the town, an awful thought, but what else could have happened? These must be invaders, here to battle with the Duke. They eliminated the Duke’s mage, now they would storm the fortress and attempt to defeat Duke Barath in battle. Burgund hadn’t seen war in over five hundred years, and that was war with the evil hoards from the Southern Mountains, not humans. Few people knew that history as more than legend. This could be a war against men, which had never happened here, and was unthinkable, yet here it was and Andric could do nothing.
The new horses approached, and one of the soldiers began giving orders in a low voice, yet Andric, who could hear a rabbit brush a leaf in the forest, could hear him clearly. His accent was thick, like men from the north. “Bring these two to the dungeon, we’ll hunt down more.”
“Who be that one?” A different man said.
“Just a farm boy Lord Eludros has an interest in.”
The man laughed. “Always best to keep his interest away from yer self, I say.”
“Aye, you do say.”
There was an uncomfortable clearing of throats. “Yes well, I best be getting on with orders. Shahaim!”
Andric could hear most of the horses in his column galloping away and other horses approaching him. He started to move again, this time at a more comfortable walk. Shahaim? Where are these men from?
“Caught the interest of the Lord, did ye?” A soldier jabbed his ribs hard enough to make him wince. “Yer better cutting yer own throat I say.”
Andric could taste stomach acid in his throat. He wished he could vomit. Instead he struggled against the cords, and earned another punch in the ribs, this time with a mailed fist. Pain shot through him as the wind left his body and for a moment he wheezed breathlessly. A rib was broken he felt sure.
By the time his breath returned, they had ridden into the cobbled main street of the town of Burgund, but gone was the bustling chaos he knew should be here this part of the week. There were no people on the streets, no vendors calling out their wares, no jugglers, musicians, or bards entertaining for the penny. Whatever happened here had the townspeople scared, or worse – though he hoped they were behind the walls of the fortress. Yet they may merely be behind the shutters of their own homes. Either way Andric doubted rescue would come at their hands. Sticks were not much use against swords.
The procession moved steadily though the wide main causeway winding its way through stone and timber houses and businesses. Most rose three stories, some even higher with slate shingled A-framed roofs and gables that let snow drop off in the winter months. As they passed alleyways and inns, familiar smells came to his nose, not all pleasant, as the gutters beyond the main street were a place for refuse and any other waste the townsfolk failed to load onto collection wagons. Andric was surprised however at the smells of cooking: bread from the bakery, meats from the inns. Somewhere a fine stew was being served, and his stomach rumbled is spite of his position. Those smells meant that the inns were open, and the realization only served to deepen Andric’s confusion.
Burgund-town was a large town by most standards, with three inns and two smiths, at the center of the prosperous Burgund Dutchy in the south of the Kingdom of Avarun. The town had grown up around the Fortress, a thick castle built after the Southern War to repel future invasions. Invasions that had never come, and subsequently there was no wall around the town itself. There had never been a need for defense, as all Avarun’s enemies lay far to the north.
Andric strained to turn his head, but only managed to see the tops of the main towers that rose high above the stone walls and the town. The Duke’s standard, twin golden serpents joined at the tail on a white background, still snapped in the wind from atop the towers.
When the horse’s hooves clomped onto the wooden drawbridge that spanned the deep moat around the Fortress, and the sound of the portcullis being raised came to his ears, Andric’s heart sank. The Fortress had been taken. But how? Breaching the walls was nearly impossible and there was no evidence of destruction. The Duke would not send his soldiers out to face a superior force when he could easily defend himself behind the high walls. Besides, such a siege would take weeks, not one morning, and if master Girkin was caught by surprise, this must have happened very quickly. A coup perhaps? A squabble amongst the royals? But then why were he and Girkin captives?
The horses were clipping across stone once more, and he could hear the portcullis lowering behind them. Moments later they halted beside the tower guard stabling area and the acrid smell of manure filled his nose. Shoveling manure was the first thing Master Girkin had put him in charge of so many years ago when he was still a boy. He seemed to have a way with horses that most people couldn’t quite grasp. Treat them with respect, honor them with honor, be firm with your shoulders and knees and they trust you to lead. He had learned to break them without the ropes, Girkin called it the Elven way of horse mastering; Andric just knew it was better.
“Two prisoners, Captain. The Mage and his farm hand.”
“Take the Mage to the cold cell. Put the farm boy in with the others.” Andric stiffened in shock at the voice. Captain Radal? A traitor! Blasted bloody hell! The captain had been the Duke’s loyal man since Andric was a boy. How could he do this? He tried to kick out and break the chords, but something hard struck the back of his head and blackness filled him.
Vision returned more reluctantly and more painfully this time. He groaned and forced his eyes open all the way, rubbing his temples to transmute the pain the way Girkin had shown him. Girkin. Andric was lying on his back in a tiny room of cut stone blocks, yellow light flickered on one wall from a torch some distance away. The Duke. He sat up and turned toward the torchlight, and saw heavy iron bars reaching from floor to ceiling across the open end of his cell. He wobbled to his feet and leaned on the bars. “Ho! Anyone! Can you hear me? Blast it all to creation!” His shouts echoed down a long hall lined with similar cells, all too dark to see if they were inhabited. He slumped against the thick bars and slid to his knees.
“Nobody to hear you down here lad.”
Andric spun around as a shape moved out of the shadows at the back of his cell. He brought his fists up ready.
“You’re bout as jumpy as a rabbit, or should I say… mouse.” The voice was worn with age, and maybe something else, but it was familiar somehow. The shape moved into the light, and Andric took a step back.
“Danry? Andric’s hands dropped, but worry deepened in his eyes. Danry had been in the Duke’s kitchens since before he was born, and the Duke’s father’s cook before him. He could never sneak a cheese or cake when Danry was on duty, not that he didn’t try. If Danry was in the dungeons, how many others were here? “What are you doing here?”
The cook smiled at his name, but it faded quickly. “Could ask you the same. But I think I know.” His eyes held a tremor, fear, hatred perhaps, but he was unsteady and there was fresh swelling on a bruise under his cheek.
“The Duke?” Andric put a hand toward the old man. “What has happened? Where is the Duke?”
Danry’s face darkened, “It’s the Duke that did this, lad.”
Andric’s head spun as if he was struck, and he grasped a bar to steady himself. “The Duke? He lives? How could he allow-“
“It’s the Duke, lad. You got dough in yer ears?”
He put his hands to his forehead to force back a new round of pain. “I don’t… understand.”
Danry sat on the stone bench where Andric had been lying. “Don’t rightly understand it myself. Yesterday he’s his old jolly self and today he’s ordering his best men either to the dungeon or the gallows. Old Radal’s as mad as the duke, carrying out orders like nothing was out of ordinary.”
“Did anyone try and stop him?”
“Don’t know if you saw those new soldiers, and that elf fellow.” He shook his head slowly. “If you just looked at ’em wrong… they made examples out of a few, under the Duke’s orders, strung ’em up and burned their shops or houses. I got lucky. Suppose they were considering their stomachs by not killing me.”
Andric’s mouth had gone dry. “What… did you do?”
Danry sighed heavily. “Came into my kitchens they did, all high and mighty, asking who was loyal to the Duke. Put a rolling pin against one of their heads. Cracked him wide open, I did.”
Danry was shaking with what could be laughter, grim laughter. A feeling Andric could understand at the moment. How could this been happening? He remembered the Duke’s smiling face. He was like a father… another father. There had to be an explanation.
“Do you know why Danry? Why the Duke would do this?”
The old cook was silent for a moment before speaking. “It’s the prophesy, young lad… the prophesy. The twin moons are coming together, you seen it yourself, you know-“
The prophesy was ancient, from beyond history. Who knew if it meant anything? Andric had never taken it seriously, and Girkin had rarely spoken of it, but everyone knew it, a piece of it anyway, as a prayer that children spoke before sleep throughout all Cambria. His lips moved and the words slid effortless out of memory.
Lord the Creator of Light
Keep my eternal soul tonight
And if the twin moons should be one
And darkness spread across the sun
And if the evil should lift its hand
To walk its armies on the land
Then send your light to my side
And raise your heroes who have died
To restore your glory to the land
That all may sleep within your hand.
It was true, the moons, Zosis the greater and Osis the lesser, were beginning to merge and overlap each other. Girkin said it started before Andric was born, but he had never emphasized its importance the way he seemed to over-emphasize everything he deemed important. Andric had long ago assumed that Girkin gave little weight to the truth of them. Yet many folk believed the prophesies were real and foretold the end of the world.
“Child’s rhymes.” He said with a grunt. “It certainly doesn’t explain what we’re doing down here.”
A hand touched Andric’s shoulder through the bars. “Somebody does need to explain just that.”
He jumped with a squeak and rolled away from the bars, heart pounding like a drum. Yet the fright quickly turned to anger, and then to overwhelming relief. “Gabrella!” He tried to keep his voice low, but he knew he was as good as free. Her skill with picking locks was jaw-dropping. It was one of the problems with growing up with the girl, she picked her way into every shop, house and chest in town, and if anyone was ever caught, it was not she. Somehow Gabrella could disappear in a shadow no wider than her arm. It was everyone’s good fortune that she never had the desire to steal what she found, no matter how valuable, it was against some code she made up, and was what kept her less-stealthy friends from the hangman’s noose. Andric had faced the Duke’s magistrate more than once before he learned to wait outside while Gabrella went in to have her fun. “How did you find me? Is Drake with you?”
He could feel her rolling her eyes, even in the dark. When she spoke it was a whisper. “If bonehead was here, we’d all be locked up by now. Drake’s about as sneaky as an ogre. He’s outside the fortress with horses. I don’t know what you did this time Andric, but it must be bad, these are the heavy cells.”
“I didn’t do anything.” But she was already busy with the lock on the gate, her fingers deftly sliding and twitching a set of her homemade lock picks.
Seconds passed, then the lock sprung with a click, and Gabrella pulled the door open. “Someone wanted to keep you here, that one was warded. Still is. Should keep them wondering.” She looked at Danry who was still sitting on the stone bench. “Are you coming, Mr. Cook?” He stood hesitantly then nodded. “Good, then follow me and be quiet. I took care of the guards at these cells, but there are others wandering the halls.”
Andric touched her arm. “We need to find Girkin. He’s here.”
Gabrella looked at him with a smile. “Way ahead of you, Horseface, he’s on the level below us, and on our way out.”
When they stepped into the hall an arm reached out of a cell between the bars and jerked on Andric’s sleeve. “What about me?” A harsh voice said. “Get me out of here.”
“And me!” Another voice yelled from the dark.
“Get us out of here.”
Arms reached out of more than a dozen cells, and Gabrella’s eyes flashed with delight. She looked at Andric with raised eyebrows, then pulled her tools from her belt pouch and began to work the locks. Cold sweat beaded on Andric’s forehead as the tense minutes passed, and one by one each of the iron bar cells were opened. Gradually a crowd gathered around them, some murmuring about how they would get out of the fortress and others remaining silent with wide, staring eyes. No doubt they had a bit of cold sweat as well.
By the time Gabrella had reached the last cell more than two dozen prisoners were with them, all as silent as the night. Andric saw many faces he recognized, even some with names he knew. Tanner the blacksmith he knew well. Ealon the Builder. Hadraic who ran the mill outside of town, and Hadric’s thick wife Yurda. Most were townsfolk – men dressed in colorful breeches and loose wool shirts, and women in long, pleated dresses with square necks and laced wrists. Yet there were even some of the Duke’s kin among them, men with their fine coats and riding breeches and ladies in fitted dresses of fine, heavy silk, now soiled. Nobles, they liked to call themselves, Barons and Earls, and Counts. Most wore bruises, all were stiff, and eyeing their cells as is if in half a mind to run back in. They all looked at Gabrella in her snug-fitting, unladylike, black trousers and black coat with more than a little respect. She stood shorter than the men though taller than most of the ladies, with wavy black hair reaching past her shoulders and large dark eyes scanning invisible details. Andric thought she might be pretty, if she was not such a sister to him. They were about the same age and had been best friends, along with Drake for more than a dozen years.
Gabrella reviewed her troops, she was in full command at the moment. “Follow me if you choose to leave, but keep silent or you’ll wish you were never born.” She stalked forward on soft, silent boots to the heavy door at the end of the hall and peered through a grilled window, then pulled the latch and swung it open just wide enough for one person to move through. She slid past the door and motioned for the rest to follow. Andric was right behind her with Danry on his heels. The small room on the other side was lit with bright oil lamps, and two guards in dull scaled armor were sprawled on the stone floor, apparently unconscious. Andric could see a tiny red mark on the neck of one. Gabrella was handy with darts, and had learned long ago how to mix various toxins to make people sleep… or worse. She was already opening the door on the far side of the room, and motioned for him to follow. He stepped over the guards, and paused beside the door. A long, straight, two-edged sword in a plain leather scabbard was leaning on the wall. Standard soldier issue. He hesitated only for a moment, then snatched the sword, and gripped the straps against the scabbard to keep them from bouncing.
Beyond the door was a long, dimly lit corridor where Gabrella was waiting. Her impatient eyes darted to the sword, and she shot Andric an angry look. She knew he had always practiced swords with Drake and other friends, even dragged lessons out of Palco, Captain Radal’s lieutenant who said he was a natural with a blade, but never had he actually owned a real sword. Girkin had forbidden it. Andric was meant to be a Mage or nothing else. So far he was nothing else.
He gave her a firm look and shrugged his shoulders. Right now it was a sword or nothing else. Danry and the others began bumping into the hallway and Gabrella switched her glare to them, producing instant silence. She spun on her heels and motioned them to follow.
They traveled only a short distance before they reached a set of descending stairs wide enough for two abreast. The entire group followed like sheep to their shepherd until they neared the bottom, where Gabrella signaled them to halt. “Wait here.” She whispered. “And be silent.”
When she turned to go Andric followed and she immediately spun around. “I said wait.” Andric shook his head. Girkin needed help, needed him. He had failed once and he would not do it again. He wasn’t sure if Gabrella knew his thoughts, but her face softened. “Stay behind me, guards ahead.” How did she know these halls so well? If she had broken into the fortress before, she had told no one.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and a door with an iron plate window barred their way. When Andric heard voices on the other side, his hand tightened on the sword’s hilt and his mouth went dry. He had never killed anyone, never even tried to hurt anyone. He braced himself to rush through the door, his heart racing madly, blood pounding like galloping hooves in his ears. Then Gabrella knocked, and he almost fell over in disbelief. Surprise had been their only chance… it was certain death now. Feet shuffled to the door and a gruff voice yelled through. “Who’s there?”
Gabrella did not hesitate. “A friend of Shahaim.” She yelled, and stepped back.
There was a moment of silence, then the iron plate slid open with a flood of light and sweaty eyes looked out at them, then widened and froze. A tiny, feathered dart protruded from between the man’s eyes. As the man fell over backward, Gabrella raised a second tiny blowgun, poked it through the window and gave a little puff. Andric heard a dull thud behind the door, then a second thud. As fast as she had brandished the blowgun she made it vanish up a sleeve, then produced her lock picks again. “Bring the rest down.” She whispered, while working the lock. Andric only shook his head in wonder and crept back up the stairs on shaking legs to the waiting escapees.
By the time he returned, the door was opened and Gabrella was inside. He crept to the opening, Danry and the others behind him imitating his caution, and looked into the room. Gabrella was there, just opening a stone door on the far wall that looked to be a part of the wall itself. There was also an iron bound door on a different wall standing open. Sweat beaded her forehead and she was visibly tense. The two guards were on the floor, sleeping deeply. When he stepped inside, she didn’t even look at him before speaking. “This door was heavily warded, horseface. It was the biggest trick of my life so far. If I hadn’t borrowed Girkin’s ward books I never would have even seen it.”
Andric stared at her in disbelief. “You took Girkin’s books? He searched for those for weeks. He thought the house had been invaded by imps. We had to sleep in the barn for a fortnight.”
For a breath Gabrella had an apologetic look, then she shrugged and turned her eyes to the crowd that was now pushing into the room. “All of you, through this door. Follow the corridor until you reach a small chamber with wall hangings and bookshelves, then wait. Danry.” She handed the cook an oil lamp, which he took without hesitation, then the people warily stepped over the guards and filed through the door. Within moments they were through and Andric could hear their shuffling fade into the distance. Gabrella gave Andric a look that said he should have gone with the others, then turned and slipped through the iron bound door.
Andric followed and found himself in a short corridor with two heavy iron doors at either end. Gabrella was already approaching the door on the right, her eyes scanning the floor, wall and ceiling for something unseen. When they reached the door, she leaned her head close and whispered. “Master Girkin? Master?” A silent moment passed, then a small iron window in the center of the door slid open and Andric could see two shining eyes peering out at him.
“It’s about time you got here. I was beginning to wonder if they had taken you too, Gabrella.”
“Master Girkin.” Andric almost fell over with relief. “We’re getting you out.”
“Andric? I’m surprised Gabrella didn’t send you out already. And you won’t be getting me out. Not right now anyway.”
The words sent a chill through him. “What do you -“
Gabrella spoke over his question. “What wards were set here, Master Girkin?”
“They are strong indeed, young lady.” His voice was heavy. “I cannot break them, nor move around them. Nor work any Power at all. I suggest you do not attempt it unless you would enjoy living your life out as a slime mold, or a grasshopper, or dust.”
Gabrella jerked back a hand that was reaching for the door.
“What can we do?” Andric moved closer, a tight frown on his face. “We have to get you free. Why did they do this? The Duke -”
“It’s the Prophesy, lad.” For a moment there was silence, then Girkin sighed as if releasing his hold on something.
“But I thought you -“
“Forget what I used to say. I’ve been a stubborn old fool.” Girkin took a deep breath. “Do you wear your necklace, lad.”
Andric hesitated, how did they go from escape and prophesy to his necklace? “Yes but-“
“Show me now, quickly.”
With visibly shaking hands Andric undid two buttons on his shirt, and removed a dull gray stone set in silver hanging from a plain silver chain around his neck. Girkin gave him the stone when he was a child, when he first told Andric about his parents who died fighting trolls in the Blade Peak Mountains. They asked Girkin to care for Andric if harm should come to them, and give him the necklace to know them by. Andric cried that day, for he had known only Girkin as his father, yet he took the necklace in tight little hands and has worn it every day of his life since. The stone was a rare gem, he later learned, a moonstone, that when held up to the light of the twin moons of Gian, would become translucent and reveal tiny replicas of the moons in its center. He knew the image well, he studied it almost every night the moons lit the sky, and since he first looked within as a child, the moons in the stone had been moving closer together, mirroring what was happening in the real sky. He raised it up to the opening where it caught the light, and Girkin could see it.
“Your necklace is what they’re after, lad. I’m almost sure of it, they’re searching for something and they haven’t found it yet.”
Andric studied the stone with a disbelieving frown. “But why would anyone be after this?”
“I choose to know, lad. That stone is more rare than you can imagine. Possibly an actual piece of one of the moons, fallen to Gian in ancient times.” Girkin looked closely at Andric, catching his eyes. “Your father was more than I have told you, a great warrior. But he swore me to train you not in swords, but in Mage arts.”
Girkin gave an oath to his father? An oath he had forced Girkin to break. Why had the mage not told him? Andric pushed the sword he was now wearing behind his hip. He would have studied if he knew his father wished it. I would have. “Why didn’t you tell me Girkin? I -“
“Your father and mother were strong believers in destiny and the currents of life that pull us all through the Ocean of existence. I was only to offer you the training… and let you choose.”
Andric steadied himself with a hand on one wall, the knot in his gut pounding on his heart. “Why? Why would they tell you that? If I had known… what else, Girkin? What other secrets have you kept?”
“That is all… “ Girkin said. “Yet there is much I do not know… about the prophecies.”
Gabrella cleared her throat and delivered both men an impatient look.
“There is one who would know.” Girkin said quickly. “My old friend Gelibor .”
Andric gave Girkin a disbelieving look. “The hermit?”
“He is a Mage of some power, he once held a high position in the Tower of Elder, yet his belief in the Prophesies, and other things, brought him down. He tried for years to convince me of them, that they were nigh, but I turned a deaf ear like those that drove him from the tower.”
Gabrella touched Andric’s arm. “We must go.”
Andric shrugged her hand off and stepped closer to the door. “We can’t leave Girkin.”
“You must leave, lad.” Girkin said. “The wards here are too strong, you’d be incinerated, or worse if you tried to break me out.”
Andric pounded the door with his fist, his teeth barred in rage. “They can’t keep you here! You’ve done nothing. I’ll go to the Duke and give him the necklace -“
“No.” Girkin’s eyes were suddenly fierce. “The Duke will do nothing, Andric. He may even be worse off than us. You must not allow this stone to fall into their hands.” His voice dropped as he spoke, “Beware of the Elf Eludros. He was young when I was in the Tower, but ambitious and skilled with the Power. Now he is powerful and seeking what you have. This world has seen dark times lad, and I now fear those times are returning. Your father meant for you to have this necklace, we must find out the reason and keep it from Eludros, and whomever he serves. Whatever they want with it can only be for ill, allowing them to have it could bring even greater harm than has already befallen us. Go to Gelibor, he may be of help if he’s not gone completely mad.”
This time Gabrella leaned in close. “If we don’t go now,” she said with a hiss “I will go mad, and we’ll all end up wishing we were Dragon food.”
Andric pressed his fist to the door; his jaw clenched and eyes locked on Girkin’s. The old mage’s bushy white brows did a little dance above his eyes, and Andric released his breath, a quivering smile on his lips and redness in his eyes. “You old mule.” He said with a jerking breath. Girkin would wiggle those brows when Andric was a boy and make him giggle till his sides hurt. He took another breath and stood straight. “I will be back for you.”
Girkin’s eyes seemed to smile, but there was hesitation in his voice. “I’ll be right here. Go to Gelibor . Follow Rock Creek south into the Old Forest, when you come near he’ll find you. Have a care lad.”
Gabrella took Andric’s arm, and after a moment he let himself be led away, his eyes on Girkin’s until they passed into the guardroom. The two guards still slept on the hard floor their chests barely rising and falling. Andric stood numb as Gabrella closed and locked both wooden doors, then gestured for him to pass through the stone door. He forced his feet to move and in moments he was passing down a dark stone corridor so narrow that he had to turn sideways to continue. Behind him he heard the stone door sliding and clicking shut and Gabrella’s soft feet catching up behind him. How did she know of this? Curiosity slid dully over and passed away. He kept his feet moving. I will be back. I will.
Minutes later, he could not say how many, Andric became aware of light ahead. He turned to Gabrella who nodded for him to proceed. Before he even reached the dimly lit chamber ahead, he could hear the murmuring of voices, the former prisoners. When he and Gabrella stepped into the room, relief spread across their bruised faces, yet their eyes still darted nervously, and not a one spoke over a whisper.
“We were… uh… a bit worried, my Lady.” Danry said with a crooked smile.
“I’m no lady, cook. Stand aside.” She pushed the weaver and the mason’s wife aside and bent to the floor, her eyes not an inch from the wide flagstones. A few moments later, a smile sprung to her face and her fingers produced a knife, which she pushed into a tiny slot in between two stones. There was a click, and suddenly a square seam formed in front of her. The gawking villagers stepped back as a block rose up out of the floor then lifted at one end to reveal a narrow stone staircase leading down into darkness. Gabrella stood quickly and motioned to the stairs. “Go now, quickly.”
One at a time, the people filed down the steps until only Andric and Gabrella remained. “How do you know about all this?” Andric said.
Gabrella smiled slightly, then pushed Andric ahead of her to the stairs. “Later.” Gabrella was about as loosed-lipped as a housecat, but he would definitely to pry this one out of her.
At the bottom of the stairs was an arrow-straight hallway where the townsfolk were waiting in single file. It was a tight squeeze when Gabrella and Andric pushed through to the front. Andric had to suck his stomach all the way in when he came to the baker’s wife. The hall went on for what seemed like hours with absolutely no turns, and all the while becoming more narrow. Toward the end, the walls were in a state of greater decay, with roots cracking blocks, and crumbling mortar and soil covering the moist, black floor. This would make a nice lair for some nasty troll, if any such thing existed in Cambria anymore. The thought made the darkness ahead terribly menacing. He rested a hand on the sword hilt, but it provided little comfort.
When he finally pushed his way out of a vine-covered door into a tick copse of trees, the darkness of night was around them and the quarter-full, twin moons rode high.
Andric heard the whicker of a horse and he whirled around, drawing sword from scabbard in one swift motion. Gabrella gave a start, then shot a hard look at Andric instead of pulling her knives. From between two thick trunks a wide, dark shape emerged, and Andric sheathed his sword with a sigh. There was only one set of shoulders like that in all of Burgund.
Drake strode into the pale moonlight, and though the hood of a cloak hid his face, Andric could see the whiteness of a grin. “The dungeons got you jumpy, horseface? Where’d you get the real sword?”
Andric could not help but smile. “One of the dozens of guards we had to kill on the way out.”
The grin left Jerrod’s face and his eyes darted to Gabrella for confirmation. Several of the townspeople who had already pushed out of the opening gave Andric incredulous stares. Gabrella shook her head with a laugh. “If you two are done yammering, we need to move. Drake, bring the horses.” Drake shot Andric a hard look, then cracked a smile again before turning back to the trees.