Authors: Barbara Kloss
A voice barreled through wind and courtyard, echoing throughout the skeletal stone remains. "Halt!"
he word "halt," when it's yelled, has an interesting effect. For all its intention of commanding one to stop whatever it is they are doing, it actually drives them to do the exact opposite, and usually in a hurried and desperate fashion.
I wanted to run. I wanted to go back the way we had come and keep running until we were far away from this place. But it was too late. There were at least a dozen shadows all around us, seeking refuge behind broken rocks and walls. We would already be dead if they'd willed it.
Vera sat as tall and as proud as ever, exuding the confidence one only carries when they find impossibility in defeat.
I, however, did not share her confidence.
"Identify yourselves!" the voice continued. His voice—for it definitely was a he—bounced around the ruins.
Calyx whinnied and tugged against the reins.
"Shh," I whispered, stroking his mane.
"Watchman of the mount." Vera's voice rang clear despite the howling wind. "I am a friend." She extended her empty palms in a gesture of surrender. She dismounted fluidly, landing on the ground with bent knee and a bowed head. "My companions and I have come to request an audience with Myez Rader."
The wind stirred a tiny cyclone of snowflakes across the courtyard, and a large figure emerged from behind the rubble. Whoever it was looked like a bear, they were covered in so many layers of fur and leather. A bow and quiver had been strung over the person's back and they held a very scary looking sword in one gloved hand. The person stopped a few paces before Vera. "No one goes through the mount right now. And definitely not a
." He growled this last word, and Vera went still.
I wasn't sure what the term "wolf" meant, but one thing had been made perfectly clear: it hadn't been a compliment.
The shadows pressed closer. I noticed the tip of an arrow poking out from behind a boulder, leveled on Vera. Alex was as still as death beside me.
"By the Code of Mirin," Vera said tightly, "you are bound to—"
"I am bound to no code." The man cut her off. "Your words are nothing here, wolf. But there is a mighty high bounty on wolf skin…"
Alex shifted beside me, and the little points of life in the shadows grew warmer. This wasn't good. We were completely outnumbered, and if this broke into a fight, odds were not in our favor.
The man stepped toward Vera and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look up at him. Her hood fell back, exposing her white-blonde hair, and her face filled with fury. "Ah, a pretty wolf." The man's voice took on a slightly different timbre.
"You will let us pass, or you will pay for it with your lives," Vera spat.
A strong gust of wind ripped through the snow-dusted courtyard, moving so fast and so strong that it ripped my hood right from my head. I tugged it back over my face, but it was too late; a bolt of curiosity shot through me from the bear-man.
The man shoved Vera aside. "What is your name, girl?"
"That is none of your business—" Vera started.
"I am not talking to you,
." The man cut her off sharply and took a step toward me. "You there—the one with raven's hair. What's your name?"
In my periphery, I saw Alex's hand flex around the hilt of his sword.
The bear-man waited. Such a simple question, but its answer was crucial to our survival. Did I tell the truth? Did I tell this boorish man I was King Darius's granddaughter? Would he let us go?
No. I couldn't tell him who I really was.
Then what did I tell him? If these men were the guardians to a city of thieves, they would be masters at sensing a lie. I had to tread forward very, very carefully.
I dismounted Calyx, feeling every ounce of Alex's anxiety while fighting hard not to show the weakness in my body. My arm pulsed in pain as I reached up and pulled back my hood, letting my dark hair spill over my shoulders. My brain whirled to come up with something good. Something believable.
A gust of wind whirled around me.
I am here,
it seemed to say, and then as quickly as the wind had come, it dissipated.
And I suddenly had a plan. It was a risky plan—quite possibly the dumbest plan I'd ever come up with in my life—but that was exactly why it just might work. Who would possibly expect this?
Names and places from books Fleck and I had read ad nauseam in the castle library filled the blanks in my mind so quickly it was as if someone had planted them there.
"I am Astaire Dothrai, Mistress of the Vale." My voice rang out across the courtyard so that all the shadows might hear it. "I seek an audience with Myez Rader, and I must not be detained, for the matters I must discuss with him are of a sensitive nature."
I stood tall and the courtyard was silent. Alex's surprise and confusion trumped all other curiosities that had sprung up in the shadows around us. The wind slipped through my hair, reminding me it hadn't left.
"Mistress of the Vale, eh?" The bear-man folded his furry arms.
Keep your composure or it'll never work.
I looked at him as though he were a waste of my time, because that's exactly what the great sorceress Astaire Dothrai would do, at least according to her memoirs I'd found in the castle library. What they'd been doing there, I'd had no idea, but right now I didn't care.
The bear-man removed his leather mask so that I could see his face. His cheeks were scarred with pockmarks, and there was a nasty scar through the center of one bushy dark brow that ran all the way to his jaw. There was malice in those dark eyes, unfettered and probing, as well as something else that turned my stomach over. He was a brute of a man, and no doubt he was used to getting his way.
Stay strong. It is you he should fear. You must believe or he most certainly never will.
I didn't know how long he stood there staring into my eyes, waiting for a sign of weakness. Five seconds. Five minutes. Either timeframe was too long for my comfort, but I held myself together, hoping he saw the woman I wanted him to see. Not the weak and injured woman I really was.
Finally, he broke the silence. "It seems to me a Mistress of the Vale wouldn't need an escort of
I frowned. "It seems to me a
shouldn't have an opinion of my needs." All cordiality in my tone vanished, and I leveled my gaze with his. "As it stands, I suggest you cease threatening my companions and me and let us proceed before my
involve stealing your wretched life from that hideous thing you call a body and binding it to a real wolf for all eternity."
The guard shifted, uncertain. No doubt he'd heard the horrifying tales about what the real Astaire Dothrai could do to spirits—binding them to creatures in this world so they could never find rest. I'd always found the tales frightening and unsettling myself, but it seemed appropriate given our current circumstances.
Still, he hesitated.
Open your palms
, said a voice in my mind.
I opened my palms, and the wind suddenly ripped around me with wild and savage force. It twisted silently, faster and faster, lifting up snow and ice in a small maelstrom of winter. Our horses brayed, backing away from the force. The man stepped back with wide eyes, but the wind moved beyond me, reaching out toward him. Already, the edges of his furs were fluttering as though the silent vortex were trying to pull him inside of it.
"Enough." He held up pacifying hands.
"My companions go with me," I said, still letting the wind twist toward him.
"Of course, of course!"
The wind twisted a second more and then dissolved into thin air.
He didn't bother hiding his relief. He patted his furs, his leathers creaking as he did so. "The horses have to stay."
"The horses will not stay," I said. "They come with us."
Fear flickered in his eyes. "It's not my rule, Mistress—unless you intend to sell them. Even your magic will not be able to protect them below. And besides, they won't fit on this side."
I glanced at Vera. The look in her eyes suggested that this man spoke truth. I clenched my teeth and looked back at the brute, careful to hide my dismay. I couldn't leave Calyx out here. He'd never forgive me! "A moment, please," I said to the man.
He nodded and backed a few eager steps away from me.
I leaned to Calyx's ear. "Do you know the way back?" I whispered.
Calyx whinnied and shook his mane. He didn't like where this was going.
"I know," I continued, "but I can't take you with me. It's too dangerous."
Calyx's front hoof clawed and scraped on the stone.
"I'll be fine, but promise me you'll go straight back to the castle with the others."
Calyx raised his nose in the air like he was pretending he didn't hear me.
"Please." I rested my hand on his mane. "I need you to keep an eye on Stefan."
With a loud and irritated snort, Calyx turned on his heels and started trotting back across the courtyard in the direction we'd come. Alex dismounted Parsec, and Parsec followed Calyx, and then Nimarra trotted after them. I hoped they'd be all right.
The watchman was studying me. "Interesting horses, Mistress."
"I have a proclivity for intelligent animals." I gazed back at him without expression, and he recoiled a little in remembrance of my threat. "Shall we?"
His lips tightened as he waved his hand at the air. Another figure in furs emerged from the shadows and jogged to his side. The brute leaned over and whispered to this new man, who then said, "Follow me."
The three of us followed our guide to the edge of the courtyard and up a broad set of stairs. Vera's silence was dumbfounded, and waves of Alex's amazement pushed through me with more force than the winter wind.
I am with you; I am always with you.
It was the voice again, the light sound carried by the wind. I wanted to say something back, like "who are you?" or "what do you want?" but I didn't dare. Not now—not here. My questions would have to come later.
Our guide led us to the foot of the enormous structure I'd noticed from the base of the hill. The mighty stone ribcage arched overhead, and our guard stopped before a set of enormous iron doors in a wall that was somehow still intact. The doors were bolted and ribbed, and when the guard pushed one in, it cracked open without sound. Or maybe I just couldn't hear it over the wind. He ushered us through, and I stole a glance back. The snowflakes were much larger now, falling over the crumbling remains as if trying to bury the stone fortifications forever, but there was no sign of the watchmen or the horses.
I hoped the horses were running far away from this place.
"Mistress?" The guard waited at the door.
I nodded sharply and stepped inside. The guard led us through what had at one time been a great hall. It was the size of a large warehouse, completely hollowed out and missing windows and big chunks of wall so that you could see white and trees and cliff beyond the room's perimeter. The mighty beams spanned above us, and snow fell through their great gaps and onto the broken and cracked stone floor below, where our feet left fresh prints in the newly fallen snow. There were other prints here, too—others had passed this way, and fairly recently.
At the far end of the room was a hearth so large that all of us could fit inside, standing, and with room to spare. Iron grating covered the base, dusted with ash and burnt wood, and a few iron pokers and a broom hung from hooks on the side. The guard grabbed one of the pokers and raised it like a lever. The ground rumbled, stone grating upon stone, and very slowly the back of the hearth spun around, revealing a wide, torch-lit passage beyond.
So this was the hidden entrance to Thieves. Or at least one of them. The bear-man had made it sound like there might have been another when he had mentioned that the horses wouldn't fit on this side.
The guard gestured for us to go inside, and as Mistress of the Vale, I thought that I should probably go first. Alex followed close behind me, and the hearth was so tall that even he didn't need to duck. We stepped inside of a torch-lit antechamber, and once all of us were through, the wall of the hearth rumbled to a close behind us, leaving us alone.
Wind whistled softly through the cracks.
It was Alex who finally broke the silence. "Spirits, Daria…" He dragged a hand over his face. "Where in Gaia's name did you come up with
I shrugged. "From a book I read at the castle."
He stared openly at me, like he was trying to find the girl he'd grown up with in the person standing before him.
Vera snorted, eyeing me down her nose. "How lovely. A princess who reads. Unfortunately, she can't follow directions very well. I told you to let me do the talking."
"And a lot of good that did us," I said. "I thought you said we'd be welcome here."
Her eyes narrowed. "In a manner of speaking."
"And just what manner would that be…?" Alex asked. His astonishment was gone, and now he looked just a
Her lips pursed. "I think the threat of war has forced them to heighten security."
"I'll say," I huffed, and then I was struck with a sudden thought. "That man back there called you a
Alex exhaled slowly and looked back at me. "Aegises serve the crown, and therefore don't hold the highest of opinions with everyone."
"But why wolf?" I asked.
Vera took the opportunity to answer this question. "Because we're stealthy and vicious and we usually travel in packs." Her eyes narrowed. "And because we hunt…and kill."
I couldn't be sure, but it almost seemed like she relished that last description of herself. "Should I be expecting this same kind of
reception once we actually get inside this city of yours?"