Authors: Garrett Robinson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Coming of Age, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery
Copyright © 2015 by Legendary Books. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses, events or locales is purely coincidental. Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited.
To my wife
Who gave me this idea
To my children
Who just make life better
To Johnny, Sean and Dave
Who told me to write
And to my Rebels
Don’t forget why you left the woods
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THE WESTERLY ROAD SNAKED ON for endless miles, winding until it vanished in the feet of the Greatrock Mountains that loomed far, far ahead. Summer hung full in the air. A heavy sun roasted Loren as it set, forcing her to lower her hood.
“This seems as good a place as any to stop for the day,” said Jordel. “Make for that copse of trees just off the road.”
Loren looked up and saw it: a small cluster of oaks in a circle, trunks almost touching. The barest tug on Midnight’s reins turned the horse. Annis and Gem clutched Loren harder. The mare’s hooves fell less rapidly now that the day wound to a close; she was a powerful horse and sure-footed, but they had ridden hard through the day, and Loren knew she would appreciate the night’s rest.
“At last,” grumbled Gem, sitting behind Annis, who sat behind Loren. “I thought my legs might fall off.”
“If you think you are weary of riding, think of how Midnight must feel having to carry you all this way,” said Loren. “Be grateful we are not walking.”
“Gratitude comes hard when I am weary and saddlesore,” said Gem. “Let me dismount, and my thanks shall flow like a river.”
“If only that were true,” murmured Annis. “I should dearly love some cool water.”
Jordel made them approach the trees slowly, in case another party camped within. But the place was empty, and all sighed with relief as they slid from their saddles.
Xain, trussed up and secured to Jordel’s horse, glowered at the Mystic as he was lifted from its flanks. Jordel was careful not to jostle him, lowering the wizard gently to the ground before tying his hands to a tree. A gag prevented his speech, but he looked at Loren with poisonous eyes as the Mystic bound him. She could barely meet his glare before turning away with a shudder. Every time Xain looked at her, she saw the madness in his eyes, and remembered him fighting Mystics upon the King’s road. Her mind filled with visions of men and horses twisting in darkfire, black flames licking their clothing and flesh, consuming everything until even the white of their bones had been swallowed. Despite the summer warmth, Loren felt a winter’s chill.
“Here, Loren,” said Gem. “Help me get the bedrolls. Your blasted steed still nickers whenever I draw near.”
“You thought she was fine enough when first you saw her.”
“She had not yet tried to bite me. I am a brave warrior, but value my fingers.”
Loren rolled her eyes. Midnight had merely tried to smell him. She did not feel like explaining this again, so she pulled the bedrolls from Midnight’s back herself. Annis took hers without comment, bleary-eyed; the girl looked as though she had slept through the ride.
“Get yourself to sleep,” said Loren. “You are weary.”
“Yet I do not wish for slumber,” said Annis quietly, looking askance at Gem, standing nearby. “Sleep brings dreams dark and terrible. Visions of the wizard.”
Loren looked away. She too faced the same nightmares, but there was no refuge — her mind’s eye often turned to Xain’s madness even while awake.
She dropped the bedrolls at Gem’s feet, then took both horses to the other side of the copse where they could graze on lush turf. Returning, she unfurled her bedroll upon the ground.
For a moment she paused, rubbing the fine green cloth between her fingers with a smile for the kindly clothier in Wellmont who had made them. Loren hoped the woman was safe and well, free from the ravages of the Dorsean army besieging the city.
It had been two days since Xain cast darkfire upon the King’s road. They had not found Vivien afterward, and Jordel suspected her survival. That was why they had ridden so hard since, testing the mettle of their horses to leave many leagues behind them. Jordel had risked everything for Xain, and if Vivien had indeed survived, he would now be an outcast amongst the Mystics. His own order would be hunting them, along with the King’s law. Their only hope was that the fighting in Wellmont would distract their pursuers long enough to offer escape.
Loren was prisoner to one memory in particular: the moment Xain had attacked her with his flames, only to have the fire gutter out. He had tried it thrice, and thrice been thwarted, until he forced her to drop the dagger — the blade that now hung on her belt, concealed beneath her cloak.
Her bedroll was laid out, and now she was smoothing it overmuch, her hands searching for any small motion to distract her thoughts. She went to tether the horses before going to Jordel. The Mystic had laid his own blankets apart from theirs, and now dug into his pack for food. His gaze rose to meet Loren’s approach.
“I thought we might step beyond the trees, to look upon the road ahead and discuss our path.”
Jordel eyed her carefully, then nodded. Loren needed no such discussion. They both knew he meant to take the Westerly Road to Feldemar in the north. But the Mystic had warned Loren about speaking of the dagger in front of Gem or Annis, and so she had to get him alone.
He stood and went to inspect Xain’s bonds. Before they left the trees, he turned to Gem. “Keep an eye on the wizard. If he should move, shout for us. We will not go far.”
“Aye. Though if he thinks to tangle with me, he shall find me no easy mark.”
Loren smiled, and so did Jordel. “Still, do not fail to call for us. We will not be gone long,” he said.
The Mystic led her out of the trees to the north, stepping beyond them into the day’s final carmine colored rays. Rolling knolls wavered in the heat, and their world had grown stuffy with barely a breeze to air it. The Mystic’s keen blue eyes fixed on the Greatrocks far away, then he turned to Loren.
“What ails you?”
She looked over her shoulder to make sure neither of the children had followed, then placed a hand on her dagger.
“Something that happened on the King’s road, when Xain was overcome with madness. You saw how he was. He would not have hesitated to kill any of us if it would have offered escape. He turned his flames on me. They died upon the air, and yet I am sure that was not his intent. I saw the look in his eyes, Jordel, and he meant to kill me. Something stopped him.”
“Indeed. Something you hold even now.”
“My dagger.” Loren nodded. “I thought as much. But how? What is this blade, that it can cast aside a wizard’s wrath?”
Jordel’s brows drew together, and he turned from Loren to look east. Then he turned back without an answer.
“Before your parents had it? Where did they get it from?”
“I do not know. I never spoke with them of it. Indeed, my parents never knew I was aware. I found it by accident as a child, and never saw it again until the day I ran.”
Jordel nodded. “Very well, then. I will tell you something of an answer. The full story would take many days in the telling, and we do not have such luxury. But even this small piece carries a heavy burden. The more you know of this dagger, the greater the danger upon you. That is why you must never reveal what you know to Gem or Annis, unless you wish to bring them great harm. I do not say this lightly, nor from jealousy. Those who hoard knowledge for their gain are a corrupt kind of men, for wisdom should be open to all who seek it. Yet some knowledge tempts the heart, and in that temptation lies death. Do you understand?”
Loren snorted and looked toward the sky. “How can I? You speak in riddles. Tell me the truth plainly, and mayhap I will see what you mean.”
“I shall. But only because you have pledged yourself to my service. I pray you will remember that oath well, Loren. With it you have earned my trust, and could land my head on the block. But mine would be only the first life lost in a great calamity that threatens all the nine lands. Do you hear me?”
“I do.” She nodded. “I promise, you will not regret accepting me.”
“With what you have done already, I could never regret it. So be it. Sit with me, and let me see your dagger.”
Loren hesitated. Rarely had another laid their hands upon her weapon, save for Auntie in Cabrus, who tried to make it hers. And now that she knew the dagger’s history and value, Loren was even more loathe to relinquish it.
He did not grow angry at Loren’s reluctance, giving her only a rueful smile. “You must trust me, and honor your vow.”
Yes, she had pledged her skill to Jordel, such as it was. But in her heart she had thought it a gesture, an oath to fight by his side, so long as he kept his word and never asked her to take a life. Little had she thought he might demand her weapon. Mayhap her vow had been made in haste. But it was done now.
Together they settled themselves on the grass, Loren sitting on her black cloak. Jordel wore one of plain brown, for his Mystic’s red made him stand out like blood upon snow. Loren drew the dagger from its sheath and placed it in Jordel’s waiting hands. His fingers traced the black designs worked into the blade. Finally, he spoke.
“This dagger is a weapon of the mage hunters from many yesteryear past. You remember I told you that in my early days as a Mystic, I was one?”
“Aye. Do all mage hunters carry such a weapon?”
“Not for many hundreds of years. You know that in the Fearless Decree, the High King Andriana forbade wizards from seating any throne, after the dark times of the Wizard Kings. What many do not know is that the Fearless Decree was not only an edict: it was a treaty. Andriana knew that if she passed such a law without the consent of at least some of the other Wizard Kings, she would throw the nine lands into war.”
“You mean the wizard kings gave up their power of their own will?” Loren looked at the Mystic with wonder. “Why would they do that? Their rule was unquestioned until Andriana stripped them.”
“You must remember that even among the wizard kings, there were many of kind heart and just mind. Those who abused their strength made the Fearless Decree necessary. But some saw how power could corrupt, and they agreed to surrender their thrones for the sake of their kingdoms. But not without a price. In those days, all mage hunters were under the High King’s command. And if the wizards were to be stripped of their thrones, they would not let the High King maintain a force that could find and kill them at will. So mage hunters were given into the control of the Mystics, and diluted of power. Weapons like yours — like this dagger — were destroyed, by royal decree.”