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She frowned, contemplating her choices, considering well. Lives depended on her choice, especially her own.
A blade? Or a mace?
Lady Bethral, Warder of the Castle of Edenrich and Protector of Her Majesty, Queen Gloriana, the Chosen of Palins, tightened the last of the buckles on her armor as she looked over the rack of weapons at her disposal.
"Don't see why you bother even pretending," Oris grumbled from behind her, his deep voice echoing off the stone walls of her office. "You're gonna take the mace."
Bethral looked over her shoulder at the older man, and raised an eyebrow. He shrugged, lifting his chin to meet her eyes. "You always do."
"It's true, Lady," Alad chimed in. The younger man was nearer her height and could look her straight in the eye. He gave her one of his boyish grins, his blond hair falling into his eyes.
Bethral shrugged, then turned back and pulled the mace off the rack, securing it to her belt. "I like the feel of a mace."
"Can't understand why," Oris said. "A blade's a better choice. What if …"
Bethral ignored him as she checked her saddlebags for the final time. Oris was a good man of strong opinion. He did his job well, and if he voiced his opinion of weapons once in a while, it was fair enough.
"There's times you need to slash, then there's times you need to hack away," Oris continued.
Alad sighed, and rolled his eyes.
Bethral looked around her office. Odd how things had turned out. She'd gone from simple mercenary to this in less than a year's passing.
There was a grumbling sound from the windowsill. The ugly barn cat roused itself, stretching in the sun as it woke from its third nap of the morning. Red Gloves had once said that it looked like a soured boil with its mottled fur. Bethral wasn't sure that was true, but it wasn't the loveliest creature, that was certain.
The cat yawned, showing all its teeth, then started to wash its face.
"Then there's stabbing," Oris continued. "What good is a mace if you need to run something through? I ask you—"
In less than a year's time, Bethral had gained a battle mare, a barn cat, and plate armor that other warriors could only dream of. She'd fought beside the Chosen to challenge the usurper for the Throne of Palins, and had stood at Gloriana's side as she claimed the throne.
She had lost her sword-sister, though. Red Gloves had left before the coronation. Bethral had offered to go with her, but Red had stopped her with a simple question.
"Now who's avoiding the call to adventure?"
Bethral wasn't sure she'd made the right choice that night. But here she was, and here she'd serve, until there was no longer a need for her services.
But for now, she'd a task at hand.
Bethral sighed as she picked up her helmet, and slung her saddlebags over her shoulder. The cat roused itself, then leapt to the floor to twine around her legs.
"You'll see to the Queen's safety while I'm gone?" Bethral rounded on Oris, cutting off his speech.
Oris and Alad both glowered at her. "Been doing it since she was a bit of a thing, back at Auxter's farm." Oris stiffened, his face getting red. "No reason to think I'll do anything else."
"True enough." Bethral nodded to both men. "But she's no longer a child you need to watch over. She's the Chosen, the newly crowned Queen, and new to the throne. If any were to—"
"They won't," Alad said firmly.
"Our oaths on it," Oris added. "They'd have to take our blood before hers would spill."
Bethral nodded, and stepped past them to the door of her office. She'd be gone only a day or two at most. "Then escort the Queen to the courtyard. I'll stop in the kitchens first."
Oris and Alad gave her a bow and headed off to the Queen's chambers.
Bethral stood for a moment, thinking. Oris was right, there were times a blade was handy.
She returned to the racks and grabbed her sword. Oris would snort when he saw both weapons on her belt, but that was fine. Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.
Bethral strode back to the door. Her saddlebags were packed well enough, but some trail rations would not go amiss. Just in case.
The kitchens were busy, with servants headed this way and that, carrying trays and pots of kav. The nobility usually broke their fasts in their rooms, summoning food and drink. The staff would have already eaten, and were now about the business of the morning.
Bethral paused, waited for a serving girl to ease through the door with her tray, and then slipped in behind her. If she was lucky, he'd be …
She was in luck. He was there.
Ezren Storyteller, also known as Ezren Silvertongue, was not one to eat in his room. He preferred the kitchens, with their wide hearths, warm baking ovens, and servants' gossip.
He was careful to tuck in near the hearth, where he'd not get in the way of those busy with their tasks. The room smelled of warm bread, and there was hot whispering of the comings and goings of the noble lords and ladies.
Ezren stayed quiet, enjoying his bowl of pot oats sweetened with honey and cream, a mug of kav near at hand. He'd made it his habit to rise early and take this place, letting none serve him in bed like a lord. No, this was far more comfortable and far more worthwhile. Queen Gloriana needed his aid, and knowledge was valuable. Very valuable.
"More kav, Storyteller?" one of the cooks asked, holding out a fresh pot.
"Always," Ezren swore.
The cook laughed, and poured. "They'll be trussing up a carcass on the spit soon, for tonight's dinner. Mind your clothes when they bring it in. The lads always get blood all over everything."
"I'll have a care." Ezren smiled at her and took a sip. He'd have to leave soon, anyway. Evelyn and Blackhart were departing this morning, and Ezren wanted to bid them farewell.
Of course, Lord Marlon would be there as well, for he was going to open the portal for them. Ezren would have preferred not to come into the man's presence, because Marlon was firmly convinced that Ezren needed to die, and by his hand.
Ezren sighed, catching a glimpse of the manacles that he wore hidden under his sleeves. The Lady High Priestess Evelyn had given them to him and explained their nature. They absorbed magic, including the wild magic that cursed him. Evelyn had been chained with them when she'd been captured.
He'd resisted them at first. Too many memories of his enslavement. But at Evelyn's urging he'd put them on, and felt the pressure in his chest ease. Without the chains, they appeared to be heavy bracelets. And they did conceal the scarring around his wrists. Still, they made him uneasy. As if, at any moment, he'd find himself …
Ezren frowned at his breakfast. If wearing the manacles rendered the wild magic null, it was worth the cost. The people around him were safe. For now.
Evelyn had told him last night that she had learned they were only a temporary measure. The manacles would not last forever. Eventually they'd absorb all the magic they could, and crumble into so much dust.
Well, that was for another day. For now, Ezren needed to finish eating. He took another sip of kav, then froze.
She was here. In the kitchens.
He kept the mug up, using it to cover his face as he let his eyes scan the room. They caught a sparkle of light off plate and a glint of golden hair. There, between the kitchen and the pantry.
It was just a glimpse, and then she was gone, disappearing into the shadows of the room beyond. Moving like a silent spirit, even in full armor.
His … no … an Angel of Light, who had rescued him and saved his life. Lord of Light, Lady of Laughter, she was lovely. Tall, powerful, with hair like gold and blue eyes like a spring sky … and not for the likes of him.
The kav suddenly went bitter in his mouth. Why would she give him a second look? Whipped, scarred, a man unable to save himself from being enslaved. No real skill with sword or dagger, and no equal to her. A storyteller with a broken voice, no longer able to enthrall an audience, much less a woman of her—
Ezren turned from his thoughts and saw one of the palace clerks hurrying toward him. "Lord, there is some question concerning damages done at the Flying Pig Tavern last night. The men were there at your expense, and the innkeeper has presented this bill… ." The man held out a roll of parchment.
Ezren stifled a curse at the amount. "Blackhart's men. It has to be. Let us go talk with this innkeeper."
Bethral paused in the doorway and watched as Ezren held his mug out to the cook, his green eyes sparkling. Something he said made the cook laugh.
She'd been out of her mind when she'd bought him for a copper.
She and Red Gloves had been on their way to another city, looking for anyone who'd hire their blades. Her sword-sister had been frothing at the mouth as they'd purchased supplies, all because a goatherder had told her a prophecy about her birthmark. Red had not liked that one bit.
The slavers had thrown the man down to the platform in the slave market, offering him as meat for dogs. Blind with rage, Bethral had flipped the copper coin onto the platform, then eased him up and over her shoulder. Her sword-sister had squawked like a chicken, but Bethral had just turned on her heel and walked away before she'd killed a slaver. Or two.
She'd leave no man to that death, no matter how impulsive or crazy her purchase had been. Red had complained, but she'd fought their pursuers as Bethral had mounted and fled, the slave in her arms.
The cook moved off, and Bethral slipped into the pantry, not wanting to be caught staring. She took a deep breath of the herb-scented air, then went to where the dried meat and hard biscuits were kept. Bethral grabbed one of the small cloth sacks on the shelf and busied herself filling it.
She'd lost her heart when Ezren had opened his green eyes and stared at her, cradled in her arms and safe from their pursuers. She'd caught her breath at the secrets those eyes held even as he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Bethrel had stayed in Edenrich to see if there was a chance that those green eyes might focus on her.
Ezren Silvertongue had recovered with the aid of magical healing and a grim determination to survive what had been done to him.
Beaten, abused, he'd been as close to death as any man Bethral had seen on the battlefield. But even with his tongue cut from his throat, he'd clung to life with a strength of will that astonished her. And his voice …
Bethral had been told that his voice had changed, but all she knew was that his voice sent a small thrill down her spine every time she heard him speak.
Which wasn't often. For Lord Silvertongue had immersed himself in the Court once again, rejoining the life he had lost during his captivity. In particular, he seemed very adept at avoiding her.
Bethral shrugged. What was, was. She could no more change than that barn cat could change the color of its fur. At least she caught glimpses of him occasionally. If she was careful, she could stand in the shadows and listen to him talk to others. And if the day came that he courted and won a lady of the Court, well …
She'd deal with that when the time came.
Bethral sighed, and slipped back through the kitchen without drawing attention to herself. Time to meet Gloriana in the courtyard and then be on her way.
The bright sun blinded Bethral as she stepped through the double doors and into the courtyard.
A quick sweep of the area told her that her orders had been obeyed. Lady High Priestess Evelyn stood off to the side with Orrin Blackhart, who was talking to his men as they clustered near their horses.
The walls were manned, and the guards at the gates of the courtyard were at attention.
Bethral felt a pang of envy that she hoped did not show on her face. Evelyn had found her love, and had fought her way to his side with an unshaken faith in him, despite his past.
"Is it safe?" A soft voice came from behind her.
Bethral glanced back, giving the young girl behind her a nod. "All's well, Your Majesty."
Gloriana nodded in return, then started across the courtyard toward Evelyn. Oris and Alad waited by the door, watchful in their own right.
Bethral frowned slightly as she watched the two women hug. This would be a hard day for Gloriana, having to say farewell to the woman who had raised her for over half her life. Evelyn was leaving this day to return to the Black Hills, taking over as the Guardian until the new High Baron could be named.
Hard for the girl, who sat so new on her throne. Bethral frowned again, not sure that her decision to leave for a few days was wise. The bandits who were harassing the main road into the City needed to be stopped, but …
Bethral's men were gathered at the other side of the courtyard, near the stables, preparing to ride with her. One was leading her horse, Bessie. The roan mare stepped out with pride, her barding gleaming in the bright sun. Bethral chuckled softly to see the cat walk over to the horse and rub against a foreleg. Bessie nuzzled the small creature, giving it a welcoming chuckle.
Bethral turned back to her duty and followed Gloriana, focusing on Blackhart's men. She didn't know them well, and it paid to be watchful.
Gloriana was still hugging Evelyn. "All we need now is High Mage Marlon."
"My father is not known for his promptness." Evelyn returned the hug with a warm smile.
But Bethral's attention had been caught by one of Blackhart's men. The sight of him confused her. What was he doing in Palins? A big black man, dark of skin, his face and arms covered in ritual scars. Bethral was willing to bet the scars also covered his chest. "Greetings, warrior," Bethral said in a tongue she had not spoken in many years. "You are far from the Plains."
The black man's eyes went wide. "You know my—"
A sound from behind her, and without turning, Bethral knew that Ezren had come out of the castle. He emerged into the light, blinking and looking about. "Blackhart"—Ezren's voice cracked as it rang out over the courtyard—"about your men and their activities." Ezren started across the courtyard.
"Uh-oh," said the short man.
"Told you not to put it on account," the tall one said.
Bethral had been about to turn, but stopped at the sight of the black man's face. It turned ashen, his eyes wide, as he stared at Ezren.
"About these charges"—Ezren came right up to them, the roll of parchment in his hand—"it seems . . ." Before he could finish, he stopped with a gasp, as if in pain, clutching at his chest. "What—"
Bethral risked a glance his way as Evelyn reached for him. "Ezren, what's wrong?"
Ezren yanked back his sleeve, revealing one of the manacles of a spell chain. Bethral frowned; the metal band looked like day-old bread, crumbling off Ezren's wrist.
A pop, and High Mage Marlon appeared out of nowhere. "Ready?" he said. "I can't be all day—"
White-hot flames surged around Ezren, exploding with power.
Ezren pressed his hands over his heart, the roll of parchment falling from his hands. He stumbled back as the manacles crumbled away. With a cry he collapsed in the center of the courtyard, barely able to keep his head up. "No, no, no," he rasped.
With a roar, more light surged from his chest, a huge column of light and fire that started to spin. A wave of heat and force washed over the courtyard, knocking everyone off their feet and sending the horses into fits.
Fear surged through Bethral, fear for Ezren, but her training made her lunge for Gloriana.
The power had begun to turn, spiraling in on itself with a sound like a thousand running horses. The very stones beneath them vibrated with its fury.
"Rogue!" Marlon bellowed. The big man was on the ground, his silk robes spilled around him like a deflated tent. Bethral wedged Gloriana behind his bulk, and stuffed her between them.
Ezren had rolled to his side, and Bethral caught the glint of his green eyes. White-hot power flared about his body, and the sound grew louder. The power lashed out, hitting the area around him. His eyes closed, and he started convulsing on the cobblestones.
Terror caught Bethral's throat. If his wild magic had gone rogue, everyone in the courtyard would die, including Ezren.
Bethral caught the glance between Marlon and Evelyn, saw Evelyn stop her apprentice from aiding Ezren. Her heart contracted in her breast. Marlon was going to kill Ezren. He was staring at Ezren, reaching out as if to—
Bethral raised up on her knees, reached over, and jerked Marlon's arm to the side. "NO!"
Marlon didn't struggle. He just turned on his side to look up at her. "He'll kill us all."
No. Not while she breathed. She needed to get him away, away from the City, from people. No matter the cost. Bethral jerked her head up and caught Evelyn's gaze. "Open a portal," she screamed. "As far distant as you can."
The wind whipped at their hair and clothes, and the fury of the power grew.
Evelyn shook her head. "You'll be killed."
As if that mattered. Bethral released Marlon's hand, still focused on the priestess. "As far, as remote as you can," she yelled. "Where he'll not kill anyone else."
To her relief, Marlon nodded to Evelyn. They'd do it. She just had to get Ezren up and through the portal. Bethral took a deep breath, but before she could stand, a pale hand grabbed her arm.
She looked down and saw Gloriana staring up at her, her brown hair tossed by the winds.
"Bethral, no, no! Don't leave me!"
There wasn't time. Bethral had to choose, and she had made that choice long ago. She rose to her feet, fighting the winds. Marlon reached out and wrapped his arms around Gloriana, keeping her down. He was talking, but she was protesting, struggling against him.
The power lashed out, as if understanding Bethral's intent, striking cobblestones with white shards of lightning, as if the magic itself sensed a threat.
A portal appeared behind the fury, its soft curtains a contrast to the chaos around them. It wavered, then solidified as Evelyn and her apprentice concentrated.
Bethral did not look back. She fought her way forward through the waves of raging power around Ezren. The flares danced around her, striking her again and again. She took the blows as she reached his side.
He wasn't dead. Bethral gasped in relief. But he was unconscious, his face turned up to the sky, barely breathing. Once again, as she had that fateful day, she reached for Ezren Storyteller, to lift him from the ground.
But this was no starved shadow of a man. She staggered as she gathered him into her arms, barely managing to heave him over her shoulder.
The winds grew wilder still, their roaring almost a scream in her ears. They battered at her, as if to tear Ezren from her.
Bethral bared her teeth, took a step, and then another, trying to walk into the portal. But the magic threw itself at her, and when she tried to step forward, she staggered again, almost falling. Bethral wept in frustration as she strained. She had to—
Bessie was beside her, snorting, nervous, her nostrils flared. Terrified, but standing firm. The cat was on all fours, claws hooked in the saddlebags, every inch of fur standing on end, mouth open in what had to be a hiss of defiance.
Bethral reached for the saddle, pulling herself up and over in one smooth move. Ezren slid off her shoulder, but somehow she managed to keep him in her arms.
The light, the wild magic surged around them. Ezren's entire body convulsed and Bethral struggled to keep her hold. She leaned forward, and cried out to Bessie. "Heyla! Heyla, girl, go! Go!"
Bessie gathered her hind legs, and started forward.
The raging fury lashed out, striking both at the portal and behind them. A thick strand of impossibly bright white whipped out. Bethral glanced back, saw the strand lashing at the others. It would kill—
The big black man stepped in front of them, naked from the waist up. He stood, arms wide, shouting, "That which was lost is now found!"
Bessie moved, and Bethral's attention returned to the portal that danced before them. The roan leapt forward, as commanded, bolting into the portal. They surged straight through the raw power. For just a moment, Bethral saw open skies and smelled the scent of wildflowers.
Then the world disappeared in a flash of white. Bethral cried out as Bessie slipped out from under her legs, as Ezren tumbled from her arms.
Bethral fell as well, smashing into pain and the deep darkness of her own failure.