"Welcome," the Queen announced coldly. Two men knelt at her throne, heads lowered in respect. "Word of your deeds travels far." Lamplight glinted off the blades laid neatly on the stone floor. "But I did not invite you into my hall to exchange pleasantries, gentlemen." They both looked up, taken aback by her words. "I have been informed by my military that your noble ways set you apart from those commoners who fight the evil in our lands in these sad, dark times." Tinari, robed in white silk, stood vigilantly at her side. A vague sneer graced his fine lips as she spoke. "And, under the advice of my guest, the Prince of Avinash," she tilted her head to the dark man by her right hand, "we shall celebrate your arrival in our city, at which time you will swear allegiance to my rule and become a captain in my Royal Guard." Aelish felt Raven stiffen at her announcement, though they both held their tongues through her speech. "This is an immense honor, Black Knight." Her jaw tensed as she said his name, enunciating each word with ferocity. "You will attend the ball in your honor in four days time. Prince Tinari will escort you out of the city that very night, at which time you will take up the duties of a leader in the most powerful military the Known Lands have ever seen. Welcome, guests."
Tinari had bound Jinna to a chair, wrists and ankles tied with rough rope. Her skin burned and ached. Screaming had not worked. He had taken her too far down into the tunnels to a place even she did not recognize. Though the light was dim, she could clearly see the red, hungry eyes of a wolf lying along the wall by the door. Tinari had spoken to it in a tongue she could not understand, and there it had remained since he had departed. Each day he came twice, bringing food and water to sustain her, but always depriving her enough to rob the strength from her wiry limbs. Often he spoke in deceptively soothing tones. "You see," he had explained in a sugary voice, as though Jinna were an infant, "I have things to get done in the next few days, and I need to know that my actions are not being reported.... inaccurately." His smile terrified her. "Fear not!" He beamed at her, showing all of his sharp teeth. "I have no intention of killing you, at least not right now. I'll return you when the time is right."
"And I'll bite you when you untie me," she had wanted to say, but prudence held her silent. Now, three excruciating days later in the cold underground room, her words sounded weak as she tried the retort out. The wolf growled at her. Stupid dog, she thought quietly. Willow will find me. Willow and River will look for me. They'll find me, and then they'll kill that horrible Prince. But a child who is lost and alone will soon lose hope, no matter how strong she may pretend to be.
"She has not returned," River wrung her hands nervously. "It has been three days. We need to find her."
Willow watched her friend pace and sit, then stand and pace again. The ritual had continued all evening. Many times they had discussed Aelish's words, of Raven's true deeds. She was no longer certain what to believe. "How are we to find her with Tinari and his wolves? I can't cast any spells up here. Even casting underground is dangerous." They had talked over a hundred ideas, and not a single one of them would work. Willow jumped up and grabbed River's arm as she passed by the couch again. "Stop," she said delicately. "Stop and breathe. We'll think of something."
"How can I stop?" the young woman's face twisted as she tried not to cry. "Jinna needs us. She could be trapped or hurt or lost..."
"Jinna can take care of herself better than either of us knows." Willow's words calmed them both momentarily. "Right now, we have bigger things to figure out." River gazed into her friend's eyes and relaxed, allowing herself to be guided onto the couch. "Tell me again what Aelish said about Cam."
"He only said that Raven did what he thought was best. That cannot mean he killed the boy. Jinna must have been with them."
Willow turned away, closing her eyes. Could I be wrong? Could my vision have been something else? Much had transpired over the course of half a week, and every initial feeling she had had about Raven had become easier to dismiss and ignore as the days passed. She breathed deeply, trying to put her own feelings aside. "I will ask him. Tomorrow is the ball. I will ask him in the morning when the castle is busy preparing."
River inhaled sharply. "Are you certain that's wise?"
"He kills wyverns, River. Not Ancients."
Early morning dew had frozen the orchards into delicate crystalline ornaments, their bare branches heavy and fragile with ice. Having finally driven off the gathering winter cloud-cover, the sun shone brightly off each glassy detail of the landscape. A figure moved slowly, methodically, following an ancient pattern of breath and form, its silhouette the only interruption in the perfection of the frozen tree world. Sword sheathed and daggers hidden, it focused its energy into balance. Limbs suspended like the plants surrounding it, the figure crouched, turned, twisted, and rose again. The motion formed its own beat, a rhythm borrowed from the earth with each rise and given back as the body fell once more.
Silent and hidden, a pair of green eyes followed every movement of the dark warrior. Willow blinked away the cold air, bending lower as the sun threatened to expose her. He is at peace, she mused, if only for a moment. Her throat tightened as she thought on all that had changed in but a few days. Never had the world seemed darker, though her eyes squinted in the bright winter light.
Raven bowed low to the earth. His footsteps had worn a pattern into the thin layer of snow that dusted the grass. No amount of breath could clear his mind. He could spend hours meditating in his battle training maneuvers as he had since dawn, but the image of Willow's face would not let him be. Out of breath from the ceaseless effort, he drove himself on, but the quiet would not come. Still, silent, her visage haunted him.
That same face, shrouded in the leaves of a laurel, watched and waited. Something will happen, she told herself. He will do something to prove his evil nature. No one can deny their true nature forever. Convinced as she was, doubt nagged at her brain more and more with each passing day. Four days had they spent together, walking hand in arm through the gardens and fields surrounding the castle, learning the tiniest details about one another, but never speaking as boldly as they both wished. Willow wanted to curse him for finding his way into her heart, a heart which belonged to another. Her attempts to push him from her mind failed miserably. Likewise, Raven cursed himself for his boldness, for his obvious pursuit of a woman he could desire but not have. Both sighed, billowing out smoky curls of breath into the frigid air, unaware of the synchronization of their actions.
The rest of the kingdom had formed its own opinions about the Black Knight and his lady companion. Though they sought the solitude of open spaces, many had caught glimpses of them walking closely together, and that was sufficient for rumors to run rampant in kitchens and pubs from the castle to the far edges of the city. Some said it was love. Others called it a bizarre infatuation on the part of the handmaiden. Many believed the Black Knight had enchanted the young woman and intended to steal her away from her service to the royal family. But alone, quiet, unseen by hagglers, whores and traders, the two outsiders watched one another; Willow, wiping away the melting frost to clear her vision of Raven, who closed his hidden eyes and saw his true love in his mind.
Prince Tinari sipped the black tea, devoid of sweetness, bitter and thick as he had ordered it. He grimaced, not at the sharp taste, but at being forced to endure the company of a commoner. The Queen, distastefully laughing at the man's simplicity, merely sickened him further. Together, the two were intolerable. Closing his eyes, the Prince of Avinash formed an image of his homeland in his mind. Gone were the icy winds and driving rains of the so-called Drylands. Instead, his face was bathed in radiant sunlight and his body was warmed from the stone upon which he sat. Rising formidably around him, the walls of his private temple were so tall that it had taken seventeen hand-carved blocks of pure sandstone to construct each one of them. Seventeen, he hummed delicately to himself, pleased with the divine number of his people. It had taken seventeen days to tame the River Avinash and thus make fertile the farmlands at the heart of his nation. Seventeen wolves graced the elegantly carved gates to the city on all four sides. And soon, his people would fast for seventeen days to honor their gods. Content that he would be among them, revered for his conquest of land and power, even the most dull conversation could be considered amusing to his refreshed mind. Tinari opened his eyes to more laughter and wit from the Queen and her guest.
"Tinari," she crooned, "I must admit, your decision to make him a captain was most ingenious." The Prince smiled and nodded his head slightly. "I have yet to meet a man who could turn down power."
"Indeed," he replied.
Frustrated, weary, and hungry down to his very bones, Cam continued to walk through the maze of tunnels and passageways below the castle and its grounds. It had been two days since he had left the comforts of the tiny room Jinna had abandoned him in, and her promise of return unfulfilled had left him with little but dread. His eyes were weak from lack of light, and his feet shuffled heavily over the uneven stone floor. He wanted to find her. He wanted to find a way out. He wanted to live. Dying underground was, in fact, so terrifying, it frequently sped his pace beyond what his fatigued muscles could bear. Driven to the ground for the hundredth time that day, though he was no longer certain whether it was day or night, Cam scraped his palms as he fell in a heap. He wanted to punch the walls in agony! But his fingers were swollen and sore, his skin too tender to bear the pressure. Biting back his tears, the young man braced himself against the wall beside him and let his head rest upon it while he breathed. Stale air coursed through his lungs and chapped his lips, but breathing quieted the pounding of his heart in his tight chest.
Through the silence, a ripple of barely audible laughter trickled through the mortar and into Cam's ears. At first, he giggled back, mildly delirious after so many days of sensory deprivation. When it continued, long after his mind had rejected it as his own creation, his keen hearing led him to his feet to follow it. He stumbled and careened down roughly hewn halls, plowing blindly through the darkness and directly into a thick, wooden door. Cam felt the smooth boards with the tips of his fingers, searching and exploring until a tiny keyhole revealed itself. "At last," he whispered, relief washing over him. He had found Merl's pub.
"Pack more food than that, girl."
"But," Ivy protested, "City Lost is only two day's ride from here. Three days if we walk." All around the city, preparations were being made. Not all would ride out at once. Stealth was the only insurance of success. It had been decided only hours beforehand that they would leave within the following week, and they had agreed to meet at the edge of the ruined city by the sea. The journey would be perilous, but no war could be fought from within the city itself.
Ulhetha grunted as she folded the unbaked bread dough again on the floured table. Calla was busy at her side mixing more dough. "Well, were there no army in our way, it would be simple."
Ivy set the large basket down on the floor in frustration. "How are we to get to the other side then?"
"That is not our problem to solve."
Calla rolled her eyes. "Nor is it Merl's, if you ask him. I thought you said he would lead us without hesitation."
The old woman wiped flour from the younger woman's face with a dry towel. "I told you he would not deny his duty. Don't mix my words. He will do as he must." She settled back into the rhythmic pounding of dough on the heavy table. Calla's words played over in her mind many times, despite the certainty she had felt in seeing Merl's future. Perhaps he merely needed time to adjust to the new role.
"What is it about Torrent that you thought would draw him to this battle?" Calla floured the table for another loaf.
Ulhetha dusted her hands on her apron and sat by the fire. She picked up the heavy poker and began stabbing at the glowing coals. "Another battle was waged there many years ago," she began. "It was the last time the free army stood united."
"This has something to do with the Ancients, doesn't it," her remark was less of a question and more of an accusation. The two women had shared many conversations about the Queen and her Royal Guard, about the presence of the Prince of Avinash in their kingdom, and about the battle stirring at the edge of the Known Lands, but Merl seemed to be the one subject Ulhetha was reluctant to discuss. "You wish to wake the one below Torrent," Calla concluded. "That is what you mean when you speak of 'those who will join us,' is it not?" Ulhetha lifted the steaming kettle of water and poured it into a teapot at the edge of the old table. "Do you know what power you are playing at?"
"Do you think me young, girl?" the elderly woman glared fiercely. "While I may not remember the great flood itself, I know a fair bit about the forces at work around us."
"Yet you will not tell me what part Merl will play in this. You will not speak of the end, yet I know you have seen it. I know it has obscured your sight of the present."
Ulhetha breathed heavily, calming herself from within. Calla had always known precisely which nerve to trigger to get the argument she desired. The death of her mother and the destruction of her home had left her with little of the joy she was once known for. "Merl's part is already done. It was his deed which set about the motion of all that you see around you, and it will be by his hand that it all ends." She dusted flour off her apron and poured a cup of tea. "Now get that bread baked and help Ivy pack. We're leaving in the morning."