Stephenie stood motionless, her long, red hair blew about her head and carried aloft by the energy coursing through her body. Her eyes were shut to close out the noise and commotion, but it did no good; she could see far more without her eyes than with them. Ever since Kas had first led her to embrace the truth of what she was, her abilities to sense energy fields continued to grow and even solid walls of stone could not block her if she concentrated.
Today, however, she would rather turn off her abilities. The din of so much confused mental energy left her head throbbing and her heart uneasy. While she was now able to recognize the subtle waves and ripples in the energy fields that emanated from people’s minds as thoughts and emotions, it was like trying to read mud to understand them. The patterns just made no sense to her. Gravitational fields were far easier to understand and control.
Focusing on her breathing, she narrowed her attention to the energy coursing through her own body, the air about her, and the wood of the floors and walls surrounding her. She could sense the density of the energy potentials, the wood having more density than the air, but much less than stone or even people. Her own body was different; while most of it carried potential energy, she could also act as a void to quickly pull energy into herself. As with heat, which was just another form of energy, the energy always moved from areas of higher potential to those of lower potential until there was no longer a difference between the two. She knew it was this ability to both draw and expel energy that allowed her to perform magic, or witchcraft, as too many people would call it.
Mentally looking away from herself, she noted a patch of sunlight coming through the open doorway into the dark hall behind the stage. She sensed the currents of power moving about, swirling and mixing with the cooler air hidden in the shadows, pursuing the innate goal of equalizing the differences. In that shaft of light, the dust danced about the currents of the air, sparkling with elevated potential, just waiting for its minute energy to be released. Kas had told her it was this movement of energy that allowed anything to happen at all.
She watched some of that energy, in the form of heat, flow into Henton. While out of the direct light, he was standing close to it. Carefully positioned beside the stage door, he was watching and waiting, but just out of sight of the crowd that had gathered. His mind was focused and quiet as always. He was a cornerstone on which Stephenie could rely.
Opening her eyes, she nodded her head as the twenty-eight-year-old soldier gave her a quick smile. Strong and fit, he had more endurance than most people she knew, but he was not overly muscled. He was more like her, nimble and quick.
“That is why we are here! That is why we need your support! That is what we will do for you!”
Stephenie directed her mental focus through the wooden wall that formed the back of the stage. She had not been paying close enough attention to Will and the speech he was giving. She appraised the scene with her mind as Will moved about on the other side of the wall with vigorous purpose. Before him were at least two hundred people, most of whom were packed into the small area in front of the stage. As the High Priest of Catheri, he had called this gathering.
The emotions of the crowd were high, that much Stephenie could sense. Always trying to be vigilant, she looked for anger, or hate, or rage, as these stronger emotions tended to be more perceptible, but, if there were any people with those emotions, she could not pick them out of the crowd.
“And now, what many of you have been waiting for,” Will’s voice carried strongly even through the wooden wall. “I want to introduce her Royal Highness, the Prophet of Catheri, Defeater of the Senzar, and Protector of Cothel, Princess Stephenie!”
Henton motioned her forward. She gave him a forced smile as she passed, still not happy with all the titles her brother added to her name.
She could feel Douglas guarding the doorway on the right hand side of the stage and sensed his own heightened irritation. Douglas was usually verbally quiet around others, but his mind had never been as focused as Henton’s. She did not want to be without any of the three, but would have preferred that both Henton and Douglas had avoided the open-air playhouse. The risk to them would be too great if something did happen.
Putting her friends aside in her thoughts, she walked onto the stage. The bright afternoon light was somewhat blinding to her eyes; however, she could clearly sense everyone and everything in the full playhouse if she concentrated. Most of the people were crammed into the small area at the foot of the stage. Those without a front row position sat in the lofts set into in the outer walls. A quick glance told her even those sections were filled.
It was disconcerting to be standing before so many people who wanted to hear what she had to say. Ever since her secret was discovered, she expected any crowds that gathered because of her would be actively trying to burn her, not listen to her. Being declared cleansed of Elrin’s evil had been something she had never really expected and the idea that people would actually embrace her had not sunk in completely.
She looked over the crowd as her eyes adjusted to the daylight. Ignoring her awareness of the energy, she actively watched the people. Many of those gathered appeared to be of the middle class, with tailored clothing that was still vibrant in color. The expressions on their faces were hopeful, yet there was also a hushed eagerness. While the purpose of the gathering had been to see her, many here were waiting to call out demands. At the moment, she suspected they were still too frightened to actually vocalize anything.
“Good afternoon,” Stephenie said and then repeated it using her powers as Kas often did, amplifying the sound of her voice. “I am Princess Stephenie and I am glad to be here today to speak with you. High Priest William, whom I have known for quite a while now, has been asking me to attend a gathering for several weeks. I can only offer an apology and the excuse of being busy working on projects for my King.”
Stephenie could feel the tension still in the crowd. This was the first time she had publicly addressed anyone as ‘The Prophet of Catheri’ and despite Will’s constant assurances, no one truly knew how anyone was going to react. She glanced over at her friend, both shorter and less muscled than Henton, but definitely fit and handsome. He was dressed in a fine white tunic; the only marking was that of a large claw-like hand woven of the deepest black threads. The emblem was a disturbingly accurate representation of the mark Kas had left on her left breast when he tried to freeze her heart.
Will gave her his sly smile, which she knew could charm most people, especially young woman. She returned the smile, though they both knew she wanted to be elsewhere.
Looking back to the audience, she continued, “I wanted to thank everyone for coming today and all the support you have given William, my brother, and myself. To mark my first appearance, William has saved an announcement for me.” She paused a moment, still watching the hesitant crowd. “I can tell you that we have finalized the purchase of land and buildings to make a new temple complex dedicated to Catheri. I can say that through monies I have secured from His Majesty, my own travels, and your donations, you will have a place to meet regularly in the northeastern part of the city near Fuminari Square.” A small rumbling of cheers moved through the crowd, but it was definitely more reserved than when it had just been Will on the stage. “Additionally, there will be rooms to house other offices and facilities, including rooms for teaching new disciples. It will likely be next summer before it is complete, but as each building is ready, we will open it.”
Stephenie mulled over the trepidation she could feel, hoping it was from the fact that she was a Royal Princess. However, in the back of her mind, she expected most of it was undoubtedly from the fact that until a few months ago, everyone considered her to be a witch and possessed by the demon god, Elrin. There were still many people who were not certain the claims of the late High Priest of Felis were true.
“I want to thank all of you for your support. As a nation, we routed the Senzar invaders and survived an attempted coup by the Burdger family. We have survived difficult times and now we have much to look forward to.” She looked around the crowd, wanting to see the hopeful faces of those that had risked much to lend her their support. “The future is always a challenge and I know there are questions about me. However, I promise you that I have always worked to do what is best for Cothel and her people. I have always done what I could to help those whom I could help.”
“Then purify me!” came a strongly accented cry. “Cleanse me of Elrin’s tainted evil!”
Stephenie did not have to search the crowd long to find the speaker. Despite the tightly packed area at the front of the stage, those standing around a young woman pressed backwards. Meeting the woman’s brown eyes, Stephenie felt a slight chill move through the crowd.
“I can’t live as I am. Purify me or kill me.”
Stephenie motioned for the young woman to approach the stage. “What is your name?” she asked, trying to place the speaker’s heavy accent.
“Earisa,” the woman said as she climbed onto the four-foot high stage. “I came from Demuth for you to remove Elrin’s taint,” she added as she regained her feet and stood proudly.
Stephenie glanced at Will, but he remained where he was near the side of the stage. While his face was calm, she could feel a sudden spike of panic from him. Damn it, I knew something bad would happen. Turning back to the girl, who was now standing before her, she lowered her voice and hoped her face did not show her own fears, “Earisa, this is a dangerous thing to do. You should not do something like this in such a public forum. You should have come in private.”
“I cannot go on living like this,” the brown-eyed girl said softly, then raised her voice. “I would rather burn than continue to live and spread evil. I will not hide the truth from these people. If you are a Prophet of Catheri, cleanse me in fire!”
Stephenie looked out to the crowd. They were silent, waiting to see how Stephenie was going to respond and while they had accepted her as cleansed of evil, she was not certain how the crowd would react to this girl. There was a good chance someone, even one of her strongest supporters, would hunt down the girl and burn her if Stephenie did not offer a solution. The problem was she had no way to ‘cure’ anyone. She, herself, was the same as she had ever been. While she had been surrounded in flame, her survival was not due to any divine influence, but the fact that her body simply reacted in a way to handle the enormous amount of energy she had drawn through it.
Will moved forward. “Do not think to dictate to the gods what manner you will be judged!” He looked at the girl, who had turned slightly toward him. “Catheri removed herself from the world a hundred years ago because of the sins of man and man has learned nothing since then! However, the world is changing and we are facing demons that we cannot fight alone. It would be unfair to allow the innocent to suffer because of the sins of others, so Catheri has returned. But, since nothing has been learned from her absence, she will not persist in following the old ways. For her help, she is demanding change! She is bringing a new order. If you are to be cleansed, it will be in a manner of her choosing, not yours!”
Stephenie’s hands relaxed from the fists she had formed. Will had taken to heart my concerns. However, unease still filled her and she could sense the crowd was growing hostile. Looking back to the young woman, Stephenie’s eyes lost focus for a moment as she subconsciously reached out to look for signs of active threats before they occurred. Her eyes narrowed as she observed threads of energy radiating out from the girl, touching Will, herself, and even reaching into the crowd. However, instead of coming from the girl’s mind, these threads were emanating from a concentrated area on her chest. Holy symbol, she growled to herself.
Noticing even more subtle threads of power moving through the crowd, Stephenie identified four other people using augmentation devices. Her hands clenched again. They are making everyone edgy, she realized. Slamming raw energy through herself, Stephenie created a more powerful energy field of her own, modulating its pattern to interfere with the priestess and her friends. The change in the mood of the crowd was sudden and palpable. So much so, that not only the priestess, but also most of the crowd had an intake of breath.
Stepping forward, Stephenie’s hands grabbed the woman’s shirt, easily breaching the subconscious field of protection the woman’s body naturally raised, for even though she was a priestess, the woman was as much a witch as Stephenie or anyone else with power. Tearing as much with her fingers as her mind, Stephenie ripped the shirt from the woman, revealing a holy symbol of Ari. With an easy yank, she snapped the cord the medallion was hanging from and stepped back from the woman, her source of power augmentation in Stephenie’s hand.
A gravity wave was forming from one of the men in the crowd and Stephenie drew off the energy before the field was complete. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” she said over her shoulder, her voice carrying through the stunned crowd. “I know where the four of you are standing and can take you down as easily as a mountain.” She hoped the reference to what she had done in the Grey Mountains would keep these priests of Ari in check. She did not want to engage them in battle when surrounded by so many people; the innocent would get hurt.
Stephenie shook her head at the panicked woman, who was covering her bare breasts with her hands, but had not removed her eyes from her holy symbol dangling from Stephenie’s raised fist. “How dare you come to this gathering and pretend to be a witch while using your powers to manipulate the thoughts of all those present. What is your purpose? Why would you do this?”
The woman stood straighter and took a moment before meeting Stephenie’s eyes. “We do not believe you are cleansed! We would prove you a lie! I would die to prove it!”
The crowd, no longer influenced by the artificial chilling of their mood, was growing hot with anger at the priestess. Stephenie shook her head. “So you,” she emphasized, “would come here and lie to everyone and use your powers against these people. The High Priest of Felis declared me cleansed; you have no authority or justification to be here. Be gone from my sight! I want you and your four friends to leave here at once!”
The woman swallowed, but remained standing, looking desperately at her holy symbol in Stephenie’s hand. Anger building in her, Stephenie tossed the cold piece of metal to the edge of the stage, never changing her focus from the girl’s face.
The girl rushed to it and retrieved her precious source of additional power. One of her companions quickly helped her down while Stephenie watched with both her eyes and her senses. The five of them had ceased to use their powers, but she would be ready if that changed. Noting the hostility of the crowd, Stephenie softened her expression and raised her voice. “Let these people go. While they are deceitful and rude, I am not here to promote violence. They are no longer welcome, but if they do nothing else, then we can let the issue rest.”
A man further back and to the left hand side of the stage raised his voice. “Your Highness, what of myself? I am a priest of Dalmic, am I required to leave? I only came to hear what you have to say and make my own judgments about you.”
Stephenie met the balding man’s eyes. “No,” she said, forcing herself to relax further. “You were not using your powers against those here. As long as you remain respectful, I welcome your presence.”
The man nodded and many of the people around him visibly sighed.
Stephenie waited until the five priests of Ari had exited the front doors of the playhouse. “I am sorry for the disturbance.” She moved a couple steps to the right, meeting the eyes of those staring up at her. “I welcome questions and doubts of who I am and what I represent. I just ask that you are open about it. I’ve never held someone’s concerns against them.” She looked across the crowd, hoping there would not be any further disruptions.
“When will Catheri bring more priests to us?” an older man standing near the front of the stage asked.
“That is a good question,” Will said, coming forward. “Princess Stephenie is her chosen prophet and together we have already started adding laymen who wish to serve into the fold. As I said just a bit ago, Catheri is choosing her priests differently than the other gods.” Will held up a polished rock from his chest. The reddish stone glinted in the sun. “Her Highness brought down a mountain on the Senzar to route them. Catheri is coming back through the bones of the world. The very rocks exude her power.”
Stephenie watched as Will continued to move about, drawing in the audience. What he was preaching annoyed her, and although she agreed it was necessary if they were to slowly change things, she had flatly refused to make the claims he was making.
“Prophet, will you heal my daughter? We have no money to pay the priests.”
A young woman just below her drew Stephenie’s attention. Behind the twenty-year-old woman was a man cradling a child of five or six in his arms. The entire crowd looked up at her expectantly.
“Ma’am,” Will said, dropping into a squat at the edge of the stage. “I’m afraid Her Highness is not available for such requests.”
Stephenie stepped forward and put her hand on Will’s shoulder. She had told Will more than once that she would not be a healer, but the sudden crushing of the woman’s spirit was easily seen and felt. “What is your name?”
“Emil, Your Highness.”
“What High Priest William is trying to say is that I’m not very good at healing others. My experience has been in defending Cothel and so, unfortunately, my skill with healing is limited. Is she close to death?”
The frightened young woman shook her head. “No, Your Highness. She has a growth on her back and cannot feel her legs or walk.”
Stephenie nodded her head and looked at the girl who was staring back at her with a look that indicated she knew she had to be quiet, but had no idea why Stephenie would be considered so important. Stephenie gave the girl a smile and then turned back to the mother and the man holding the girl. “I could probably heal her, but I worry I would cause her great pain in the process. And worse, I probably would not do the greatest job at the healing.” The woman’s eyes grew moist as she nodded her head. “However, Will and I have friends with the priests of Felis and we will make sure your daughter gets the healing she needs.”
Tears fell from the young woman’s eyes, but these were tears of joy and not the fear of disappointment that had been threatening just a moment ago. “Bless you, Your Highness. I’ve been so worried. My husband is dead in the war and Yuvin, his friend, has spent all his earnings taking care of us. I did not want to see my daughter waste away.”
Stephenie gave the girl a smile and then motioned for Douglas to join her from where he was standing on the far right side of the stage. When he was close enough, she asked, “Can you arrange for a second carriage to take them with us to the castle.”
Douglas nodded his head and although Stephenie could see he was reluctant to leave his post in protecting her, he dropped nimbly from the stage to help lead the three of them to the side where they could walk up a set of steps. Stephenie watched the crowd graciously part for them and could feel an overall sense of approval from those gathered.
Will quickly turned back to his audience. Obviously sensing this was a high point in the meeting, he raised one hand toward Stephenie. “This is Her Highness, Princess Stephenie, Prophet of Catheri, and Defender of Cothel. I am glad to have been able to introduce her to all of you and we will definitely have her back for other gatherings. While she has to return to Antar Castle shortly, I will continue to meet with you and discuss Catheri’s teachings.”
Stephenie bowed her head to the crowd, who tried to curtsy and bow in the packed area. The crowd cheered as she followed the man with the child through the right hand stage door. She glanced back at Will and was rewarded with a smile. For a moment, she felt that perhaps Will’s insistence in claiming she was Catheri’s prophet was the best course to help the people.
Stephenie smiled at Henton and Douglas as they stared at her from the other side of the carriage. It had taken Douglas a while to hunt down and pay for a second carriage. The backdoor of the old playhouse opened onto a very narrow lane. Her own carriage had been waiting on a busy side street that ran next the playhouse. That street was also quite narrow and carriages were forbidden to use it. Her’s being a royal carriage garnered an exception, but Douglas had to go all the way to the main street that ran in front of the playhouse before finding any carriages present. However, many of those were already hired and it took some searching to find one to convey Emil, her daughter, and Yuvin all the way to the castle.
“Why are you doing this?” Douglas demanded, “You don’t believe anything Will is saying.”
“Douglas,” Henton growled, “watch your tongue, one of the guards might overhear you.”
Stephenie opened herself and could feel her brother’s guards riding in the driver’s seat and hanging onto the back of the enclosed carriage he had lent her for this trip. With the thick padding and upholstery, as well as the noise from the city, she felt relatively safe, but this type of conversation was indeed better left for when they were in her rooms of the old tower.
Despite Henton’s verbal warning, Douglas continued, “If you want to remain true to yourself, you can’t start letting others dictate who you are.”
Stephenie leaned forward, but still had to stretch to be able to pat Douglas on his knee. “Because it’s the only thing I can see that will help rebuild the country.” She sat up, “And rebuilding and protecting the country is who I am. Will’s claims started when we were back in the Greys and because of them, the High Priest was able to declare for me.”
“I know all that. I want to know why you stopped standing your ground. You can rebuild the country without all this. We brought back more money than had even been in Cothel’s treasury. You said that yourself.”
Stephenie sighed. “Because I can help more people through the lie than I can with the truth. I don’t want to see people like me burn because people don’t understand the truth.” She looked out the window, uncertain if Will even believed the truth, what he said to everyone, or something different yet. “And the lie has grown too large to stop.” Turning back to the two of them, she continued, “Let’s talk about something more pleasant; my brother’s birthday is coming up in several weeks and neither of you have stated officially you are going.”
Douglas frowned, but relented in his attack on her. “Well, Sir Henton here might fit in and Will’s a High Priest, but someone like me don’t need to attend the King and his friends.”
Henton glared at Douglas for a moment before turning back to Stephenie. “I really don’t feel comfortable in that crowd myself. You don’t need protection there. Plus, I doubt the King would want us there.”
Stephenie flattened the skirt of her dress. “I don’t need protection at all. You are my friends. My only friends.” She sighed. “It is not my kind of gathering either, and I don’t care about protocol and what the other nobles will think. They might even expect me to bring all of you anyway.”
Douglas shook his head. “No Steph, I’m not going. I’ll stand my ground, even if you won’t.”
Henton leaned forward so he could look Douglas in the face. “For calling me Sir, you are hereby ordered to attend.”
Stephenie grinned. She knew Henton had not wanted to be made a knight, but her brother had insisted. Henton had even been given a small land grant southwest of Antar. However, when she had requested that Douglas and Will be knighted as well, her brother had refused. He insisted only Henton had gone so much further above and beyond. She suspected there were other factors at play, but did not have the heart to try and force Joshua to provide her his reasons.
“And just who will be buying me new clothes?” Douglas kept looking back and forth between Stephenie and Henton. “I’ve got better things to do with my money than pay for some overpriced garb.”
“I’ll buy it,” Stephenie said as a grin spread across her face. “And I’ll take care of the arrangements for what the tailor will make.”
Douglas quickly shook his head and raised his right hand. “Oh no, I’m not going dressed as a flower or some pompous fool. I’ll buy my own clothes and you’ll have to deal with what I get.”
She smiled, sensing Douglas was more griping to gripe than to give her trouble. “Thank you, both of you. Having you there does mean a lot to me.”
Once they were through the gatehouse, which was a monstrous structure protecting two sets of large double doors and portcullises, they disembarked the carriages. After accepting several more expressions of gratitude, Stephenie and Henton returned to what had been designated as ‘her’ part of the castle while Douglas escorted Yuvin, Emil, and her daughter to the temple of Felis on the east side of the complex.
Stephenie’s domain had increased since her return and now included all of the old seven-story-high tower, which stood between the gatehouse and the temple. It also now officially included the old great hall that was attached to the tower, a building she had always assumed to be hers. And because they were housed beneath those two, she claimed the storage rooms that were accessed through her tower. They housed entrances into tunnels that needed to be secret and secure, therefore her brother had agreed.
These oldest parts of the castle complex were made from grey stone and boasted many architectural details, overhangs, and subtle lines. However, they were drafty and the style was no longer in fashion with the designs of the last couple hundred years, and so, few people objected to her claims.
Her brother lived in the large square keep that dominated the southern part of the castle grounds. The tan keep, with its sharp lines, large blocks, and square corners, stood like a four-story-tall box of stone. Most of the other parts of the complex had been built or rebuilt in the last few hundred years and all of it was dull in Stephenie’s mind. However, she had to grant the new buildings the benefit of very thick walls, most of which were filled with hidden passages.
On approaching her long and dimly lit great hall, she sensed several men inside. She recognized the feel of their minds as she followed Henton through the open doors at the top of the steep steps. The men inside turned and glanced at Henton, but when they saw her, she felt a sharp flash of fear in the workers.
“Your Highness,” one of them said quickly to cover the involuntary flinch he had on seeing her. All those on the ground bowed deeply; those up in the rafters grew very quiet.
Forcing herself to ignore their reaction, she smiled at the men. “How are you doing today, Fradin?” She did not bother to glance up at the three other men who were thirty feet over their heads. These men were a birthday gift from her brother, or at least their work was. Her one wish had been to have the rotting roof repaired and while her eighteenth birthday had been several weeks earlier, she was glad to see the repairs finally starting.
“It is slow work, but we will keep as much of the detail as we can.”
She smiled at him, despite the slight taste of his fear in the air. She knew that Fradin also liked the historic beauty of the building, even if so many others continued to want it updated. “Keep yourself well; I will not disturb things by hovering.” Acknowledging their bows at her departure, she walked the length of the great hall, passing the old and worn tables on her way to the door leading to her tower.
Her tower was the largest in the complex; standing fifty feet in diameter and seven stories high, it was truly an imposing structure. However, many years earlier, the outer curtain walls had moved beyond the original castle design and her tower no longer offered a strategic advantage over the shorter and stouter towers built into the wall. Therefore, it had been mostly abandoned, along with the old great hall, until Stephenie chose to call it home when she was old enough.
She strode confidently through the door, headed left, and up the wide staircase that curved up the outer wall. The wide stairs allowed easy access for large supplies, including her bed, to the first five floors. Access to the sixth and seventh floors, as well as the roof, was through a set of steep and narrow spiral staircases leading up from the fifth floor.
Glad to be away from the unease of the workers, she climbed the stairs quickly, her magic automatically reducing the physical strain on her body that Henton had to endure in order to keep pace. At the second floor, he stopped in front of the door leading to an old storage room that had been converted into a bedroom for him, Douglas, and Will.
“You’re not coming up?” she asked from half a dozen steps higher, not caring that a little pain leaked into her voice.
“I figured you’d want to spend time with Kas.”
She reached out with her senses and could just feel Kas’ muted presence in her room. “I’ll have time to spend with him later. I want to at least eat dinner with you and Douglas. Unless you’d rather do something else.”
He smiled at her as he shook his head. “You’re almost as bad as your brother; you know we’ve got nothing else to do. But, since you’re a lot better to spend time with, I’ll come up with you.”
She brightened and as she turned back to the stairs, she remarked just loud enough for him to hear, “You should like me better than Josh, you spent weeks pretending to be my husband, not his.”
As she approached the fourth floor, she reached out with her powers and lifted the heavy bar that locked the door from the inside of her room. She knew she probably did not need to lock the door anymore. Now that she had returned, almost no one willingly entered the tower, leaving her and her men to be the ones to maintain her bedroom. There seemed to be an underlying fear in the castle that she had cast spells of protection that might kill an intruder.
Initially, she had laughed when she first heard that rumor, but as the days passed, the truth of the unspoken isolation weighed heavily on her. The very belief that she had enchanted her rooms showed how little people really understood magic. While it would theoretically be possible for her to create a permanent effect, she lacked the skill to form the proper lattice and structures in an object that would be required to maintain any magical fields, let alone to embed sufficient intelligence to allow it to make any decisions.
Kas continued to tell her to ignore those who did not understand. He did not want her happiness contingent on others, but she still missed the carefree days of being Joshua’s youngest sister who enjoyed the privilege of playing with swords and fighting with the soldiers. To have those friends, who respected her for her abilities, now work so hard to avoid her, left an ache in her heart.
She walked through the doorway into her bedroom. The first half of the room held her large bed, which was standing against the wooden wall that divided the floor. There was a desk and a chair against the right hand wall, and now a small table with four additional chairs next to one of the fireplaces on the left. The backroom, which was the other half of the floor, was her storage room and was still mostly empty. Her prized possessions, which had been weapons, armor, books, and equipment, had been removed by her mother when she had been imprisoned in the tower. She replaced a few things, but lacked the desire to substitute new things into that part of her life that could never again be as it was.
She ignored the contents of the room and crossed quickly over to her desk where Kas sat reading a book. When he did not look up, she poked a finger into his mostly translucent forehead to get his attention. However, he continued to sit unmoving and focused on the page of the book.
She waved her hand in front of his face, but having died more than one thousand years earlier, he technically had no physical form or eyes. He read by sensing the energy reflected from the page through the entirety of his energy field and her hand waving would not block his perception.
“Kas,” she groaned, leaning over her desk and putting her face in front of the blue-green form that he luminesced to resemble his appearance in life. “I want to tell you what happened today.”
He looked up slowly as he appeared to exhale, making a conscious effort to pretend he had a physical form. Changing his luminescence, his form became more opaque, though not any more accurate in its coloration. “I have been quite aware of your presence for some time. If you will note, this book is written in a rather obscure language that requires a significant level of concentration for me to translate in my head.”
“Yes, yes,” she said as she quickly slid an old letter into the book and closed the cover. “Some annoying priest tried to pretend to be a witch in an effort to discredit me. She wanted me to cure her or burn her right there on the spot. How are we ever going to overcome people’s distrust and hate?”
Kas softened his expression. “It is still early in your attempt. While I would have been more than satisfied to have you burn someone who perpetuates the use of those augmentation devices, I expect they wanted to test how you would treat witches, which William has been weak on when pressed by inquiring minds.”
Stephenie narrowed her eyes, “I had not realized you were paying that much attention to Will.”
Kas shrugged. “I endeavor to hear things so that I might be of use, though my grasp of Cothish is not always complete.” He leaned back in the chair as he generated a gravity field that caused the chair to move as if he had mass. “Those that believe you secretly support this Elrin—which your mindless ancestors created in their imagination—are looking to see if you support Elrin’s demons, as they would call them, or if you will support one of their other imaginary gods.” He rolled his eyes. “The very notion that anyone using an augmentation device is getting their power from a god is absurd.” Kas pursed his lips at Stephenie’s expression. “I know, you have heard my complaints too many times, but my people died trying to stop people from using those traps. To accept bleeding another creature to death simply because it comes from another world shows how depraved people are. You want to know why this imaginary god, Catheri, left your world, well it was because the being that the ticks were draining of life finally died and—”
“Kas, please,” Stephenie said to stop his passionate argument. She wanted to boast about arranging healing for the girl, but that would only anger Kas in the trading of one life for another. “I just wanted you to sympathize with me.”
Kas relaxed his shoulders and gave her a smile. “I would agree that this person was incredibly rude and should be punished.”
Stephenie shook her head, “I finally figured out what I’ve been seeing from the priests. I don’t always see them doing it, but I’ve seen these tendrils of energy flowing around, sometimes touching people. I had thought they were just feelers, where the priests were trying to sense the world around them. But that’s not what I saw today. I saw these priests actually manipulating people’s minds or at least manipulating their emotions.”
“What?” Henton asked, finally injecting himself into their conversation. “I wasn’t sure what was going on today, I felt a little out of sorts, but I could tell the crowd had been impacted by something.”
Stephenie turned to where Henton was sitting. “These people were much more obvious about it. Most of the priests I’ve seen do it before were more subtle, so I never realized what they were doing.”
Kas nodded his head and floated into the air in a way no one with a physical body could. “It is something to expect. It is one factor that always put those with power at odds with those who lacked the ability to perform magic. When there is an organized body in control of anything, be it a household or a country, they tend to push their agenda and work to convince everyone else that their ideas are the best ones. For those without magic, they have to use words, behaviors, and physical coercion. For those who can use magic, it is much more effective to use subtle mental reinforcement, than to rely on smiles, thank-yous, and sound, rational arguments.”
Henton leaned forward. “So, you are saying people with power are putting thoughts into our heads?”
Kas shrugged. “In a crowd of people, generating a basic emotional energy would be more effective than specific thoughts. Generate a sense of pleasure and security while talking about their god. Then, generate fear and uncertainty and talk about witches. Do that for years and years and you reinforce the agenda you want to the point you do not need to use the mental reinforcement.” He locked eyes with Henton. “However, even generating the mental energy is not a certainty. A passionate speech will move those who would already tend to agree and anger those who do not. Using subtle magic might just cause confusion or even an angry response in someone significantly opposed to what the mage was attempting. In those cases, a more forceful invasion of thought and emotion would be needed. But even then, someone more thoughtful or reserved would be impacted less than a person who is used to being a follower.”
Stephenie nodded her head. “And, Henton, your head is pretty disciplined. I’d imagine the impact on you is limited.”
Henton looked at Stephenie. “That still does not make me feel better. People should be free to decide for themselves what they want to believe.”
Kas scoffed. “They should learn to perceive reality and not impose what they want reality to be. To choose a reality is absurd.”
“Hey, old guy, you know what I mean.”
Kas smiled at Henton. “I do, but that does not mean I have to respect inaccuracy in your statements.”
Stephenie walked around the desk and headed over to the door. “Okay, boys, enough. I think Douglas is coming up with our food.”
Douglas had brought up several platters of food, mostly sliced meat, bread, and some bowls of lukewarm vegetable soup. There were a few sweetmeats as well, but Stephenie was not in the mood for the candied fruit.
“And I went out of my way to get it,” Douglas said with a smile as he picked up several pieces while Stephenie picked up some slices of venison. “I guess we could play some cards while we eat.”
Stephenie narrowed her eyes. “You never play cards with the guys.”
“I don’t find gambling to be entertaining, but since you’re forcing me to go to the party, I might as well use your money to buy clothes I don’t want to buy.”
Stephenie stuck out her tongue, but walked over to the table and put her plate down next to the deck of cards Douglas had brought with the food.
“No cheating, mind you,” Douglas said as he placed some beef strips on a chunk of bread.
“Douglas,” Henton said, still gathering his own food as Kas returned to his book, “Considering neither I nor Steph tend to gamble ourselves, you either have some hidden talent or are simply hoping we are worse than you.”
Douglas shrugged and sat down. “You’ll just have to see.”
“Kas, you going to join us?” Henton asked.
Stephenie held her breath waiting for his reply. She could tell Henton had been working hard to include Kas in more of the things they did, but Kas would refuse as many times as accept.
Kas frowned and then closed the cover of the book. “There is little of use within those pages,” he said in the Old Tongue, which only Stephenie and Henton could understand. “It continues to be as I expected, information on living transformations was not widely shared. The search for how to rebuild a body for me is not going to be easy, Stephenie, but there are more books still to review.”
Stephenie pulled out the fourth chair next to the curved outer wall and sat down so she was facing Kas on the other side of the room. She tried not to look at him expectantly, but she could hardly contain her emotional desire that he would join them. To Kas, that would be even more obvious than any visual display.
“I will join,” Kas said slowly in Cothish, which he was still normally reluctant to use. “On condition we play a game I know.”
Douglas moved the deck of cards to the empty seat they left for Kas and bit into his food. “Just no cheating, either you or Steph,” he mumbled.
Kas quickly explained the rules of a card game he played when he was still alive as he removed several cards from the deck to make the game work. After three hands, and the pile of coins growing in front of Kas, it quickly became obvious that he had started to make up rules during the game.
“Let’s play something where the rules are not changing,” Douglas said, taking the deck into his hands to shuffle it. Kas simply grinned as he generated small gravity fields to stack the coins he had amassed into a series of neat piles.
After several more hands, which Douglas was actually winning, Henton interrupted the quiet. “Do you need to use the chamber pot, Steph?” She looked up to meet his eyes with a questioning glance. “You have an expression that speaks of discomfort.”
She relaxed and set her cards down on the table. “I’ve gotten so used to sensing things, I am having to work real hard to not pick up any surface emotions from any of you, plus, I had not ever thought about this until Douglas demanded that I not cheat—which I think he might be doing,” she added, looking and leaning in his direction. “But I wanted to see how easy it would be and so I tried to sense my cards before picking them up, and if I let myself, I can detect the different energy potentials in the inks.” She shook her head while staring at the table. “I’m now having to work very hard not to be aware of what you have in your hands.”
Henton laughed and leaned back, tossing his cards down. “Well I won’t win with that hand anyway.”
Stephenie looked up. “Douglas has three knights, a river, and four soldiers of various rank. It does beat your hand.”
Kas leaned forward. “Stephenie, I am forever amazed. I would never have been able to sense anything like that when I was living. As I am, it is possible for me to spread myself out and see the whole table, even while projecting the appearance of sitting, but that would allow me to see only the exposed cards.”
Douglas pulled the pile of coins toward him. “Well, I guess that ends the card games with Steph and Kas.”
“I really tried not to notice,” she said almost as a moan. “Everything I used to enjoy is getting ruined because of my powers. It’s like trying not to listen when you have ears. You can’t help it.”
Douglas stopped counting his coins. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Steph. We can keep playing if you want.”
She forced a smile. “No, it’s not that, it’s just….” She looked at Kas who mentally acknowledged her unvocalized request and simply dropped through the floor. “Someone’s coming up the stairs.”
“Who?” Henton asked.
She shook her head, signaling Henton to wait. A moment later, she felt Kas reach out to her mentally.
It is one of the gate guards and he appears to be carrying a letter.
“A man with a letter,” she said for the benefit of Henton and Douglas.
Shortly after she spoke, Kas returned, but remained invisible at her side. A few moments later, there was a knock on the door, which Henton was already in position to open. “Can I help you?”
The young man bowed his head. “My Lord, a man came to the gate with a message for Her Highness. He said it was urgent and that she should get it at all cost.” The guard held the folded letter out and Henton took it before handing it to Stephenie, who had approached the door as they were speaking.
My mother? She observed to Kas as she took note of the seal. Pulling away the wax, she unfolded the letter and started to read. After only the first line she turned back to the guard. “Who dropped this off?! Where is he?!”
The guard stepped back, his limbs trembling. “Ma’am,” he stuttered, “I don’t know. The letter was given to me by the Sergeant to bring to you.”
“What is it Steph?” Henton asked, stepping closer, but avoided looking at the contents of the letter.
“When was it dropped off?”
“Less than a quarter turn ago. I do know the man left immediately.”
Stephenie paused and then nodded her head. “Thank you. Please send the Sergeant and whoever took the letter to my great hall and have them wait for me. I want to know more about this person.”
“Do you want me to raise the alarm?”
“No. Tell them I want to know about the man, but that is all. Nothing else needs to be done.”
The soldier bowed quickly, turned, and then rushed down the stairs as fast as he could. Stephenie had already turned back to the letter.
“Do you want me to go looking for the man?” Kas asked. He appeared very translucently beside her; his legs not completely formed.
She shook her head as she hastened to read, her hair rising about her head as energy leaked from her body. “Bitch,” she swore. Frustration boiling over, she could no longer hold all the energy she had drawn and she flung an angry hand toward the fireplace on the outer wall of her room. Dry wood burst into flames and exploded, sending charred fragments of burning debris across her floor.
She took a deep breath and looked at Henton who was obviously angry and frightened. “They took Will,” she retorted to his visual reprimand.
“The letter is from my mother,” she demanded, “or people who have her seal.” Her hands shook with rage. “They want me to surrender myself or they will cut him up and send him back in pieces until there is nothing left.”
“How? We left him at the playhouse with his guards. When did they take him?”
Stephenie shook her head. “He always meets with some followers and investors. I should not have left him alone.” She looked about the room, and then with a magically enhanced pull, ripped the dress she was wearing from her body as she moved toward her backroom where she kept her clothing and weapons.
“We’ll get him back,” Henton swore. “Douglas, run over to the keep and let his Majes—”
“No!” Stephenie yelled from other room. “They said for me to come alone. If they see a force coming, they’ll kill Will. You have to stay here and Josh can’t be told; he’ll try to stop me.”
“Steph, it is going to be a trap. You can’t be serious.”
She emerged from her backroom, boots, weapons, and the letter in one hand and a shirt in the other. She had her breaches on and a roughly wrapped binding around her chest. “I’m not going to have one of you die because of me. Not if there is something I can do about it.”
“They are going to do everything they can to get advantage over you. They know what you can do.”
Stephenie dropped the boots and weapons on the bed so she could pull the shirt over her head. “They may have an idea, but they’ve not seen me mad yet, and they will regret ever thinking to harm one of you.”
“And,” she emphasized, interrupting Henton, “they don’t know about Kas. Together, we can make sure it’s not a trap I can’t get out of. Getting myself killed won’t help Will, I know that. But they want me alive. My mother still wants to cut out my heart and eat it, so they can’t kill me. That gives me two advantages.”
“Steph, this is ridiculous. You know I can’t let you go; your brother will put my head on the gatehouse as a warning.”
She paused a moment and met Henton’s eyes. He was more than a head taller than she was, so she had to crane her neck. She hated to see the fear in his eyes, but I don’t have a choice. “You can’t stop me. Explain it to him.” She paused, “Besides, it’s likely they don’t have Will with them. I want you to get some people, and some of Lady Rebecca’s holy warriors, and go back to the playhouse and start looking for him. See if you can track him that way. I’ll work back from the other end.”
“Stephenie,” Kas said aloud, “I can make a quick check of the playhouse, just to make sure he is not there. Perhaps they did not actually take him.”
Stephenie nodded her head. “It’s possible, but you’ll have to do it on the way.”
Henton reached for the letter still in her hand. “Where are you supposed to meet them?”
Stephenie held the letter a moment, then released it as a section of the paper blackened and started to smoke. “You can give the letter to Josh, but I won’t have him sending people on his own.”
“Damn it, Steph, where are you going? How am I to help you if you need help?!”
Stephenie could truly feel Henton’s frustration and the weakening of his normal reserve broke her. “Several miles north of Antar. There is a crossroads leading to Merton and the town of Stillcreak. Please, do not tell Josh, he’ll send people after me and that could cause them to kill Will if they do have him.” She met his eyes, “I promise I will be careful.”
Turning away before she lost any more of her nerve, she sat on the bed and quickly pulled on her boots. “I’ll have Kas with me. He’ll scout it out and if it looks hopeless, then I’ll fall back. They just didn’t give us time to think about it. I’ll barely have time to ride there as it is.”
Henton nodded his head at Stephenie and then turned to Kas. “Make sure she stays safe. She’s…important to a lot of people.”
Kas nodded his head, but spoke in the Old Tongue. “I remind her quite regularly that she will not become a ghost if she dies. So if she wants to stay around me, she will need to remain alive.”
“Enough, I don’t plan to get myself killed. Just wait until I am away before going to Josh.” Strapping on the sword and long dagger that had been a birthday gift from her four men, she headed out of her room and down the stairs.
Henton paced about the room, constantly checking the window facing the stables and the gatehouse. He wanted to shake her, tie her up, and lock her in her rooms, protecting her from those that wanted to hurt her. However, his first real conversation with her had been in this very room when he was her captor. He would never try to hold her against her will ever again; even if there was the slimmest chance it would be possible.
“She’s making her way to the gatehouse,” Douglas said to break the silence. It was the first thing he had said since she had left the room.
Henton knew how much Douglas cared for Stephenie and so no words were needed between them. Without further delay, Henton led Douglas down the stairs, descending two steps at a time. They rushed out of the great hall, crossed the yard, and were knocking on the large double doors of the square keep just after Stephenie cleared the second set of doors of the gatehouse.
“We need to see the King immediately,” he demanded of the soldiers who were standing guard.
“Sir Henton, His Majesty has no appointments for today.”
“Damn it, it has to do with his sister, Princess Stephenie, so I suggest you let us in and inform him we need to see him urgently.”
The guard nodded his head and signaled for one of the three others with him to inform a superior. After what felt like half a turn of the glass, a finely dressed man arrived. “His Majesty will see you, Sir Henton. Please leave your weapons here with your companion and follow me.”
Henton almost growled, he had helped to save His Majesty and was not a threat, but he could not afford further delays. Barely containing his frustration with the situation, he quickly shed his weapons, handing everything he had to Douglas. Without a word, he turned back to the middle-aged man who had come to collect him and raised his eyebrows, fearful that speaking would release an insult.
The man nodded his head, turned sharply on his right heel, and led Henton into the castle. Henton tried very hard not to imagine breaking the man’s neck as they ascended the grand staircase to the second floor. On the way to the third floor, the man had grown winded and started to slow. Stephenie is getting further away with every step, move your ass!
Possibly driven by his mental command, but more likely by Henton’s poorly veiled irritation, the man picked up the pace and hastened their journey to the King’s chambers. After passing two more sets of guards and several anterooms, he was finally introduced into a small office with a large desk and richly embroidered tapestries.
“Your Majesty,” Henton said, bowing politely, despite his irritation. Angering the King would not help him and he already knew Joshua would be furious that Stephenie went off on her own.
Joshua brushed back his brown hair. It appeared to lack the use of a comb and although he sat behind his large desk, Henton could tell he had dressed quickly in what clothing had been available. “What is it? I was told this was very urgent and about Steph.”
Henton nodded his head. “Yes, Your Majesty.” Henton, having only glanced at the letter enough to know that it was written in Kyntian, a language he could not read, stepped forward and handed it to Joshua. “A man came to the gate and insisted that this be given to Stephenie with all haste. She said Will has been taken and the threat was that if she did not go to meet with them, Will would be cut up and sent to her in pieces.”
“What?” Joshua demanded, yanking the letter from Henton’s hand and quickly scanning it. He looked up when he was halfway done, having reached the part that Stephenie burned away. “Where is my sister?” The threat obvious in his voice.
“Your Majesty, she has gone to meet with these people in an effort to rescue Will.”
Joshua jumped to his feet, but he was only a couple inches taller the Stephenie, so he still had to look up to meet Henton’s eyes. “You let her go? Your job is to protect her and make sure she stays in line. Are you incompetent?”
Henton waited. The veins on his King’s neck were pulsing and he knew that if Stephenie lived, she would protect him from Joshua without hesitation. However, if she died, it would not likely be long before he found his own life ended. “Stephenie has a mind of her own and while I can offer advice and council, even plead with her, there is not a person alive that can control her. Nor would I want there to be.”
Joshua straightened from where he had leaned over the desk. “Who burned off the location of where she is to meet them?”
“That was her. She took Kas and promised that he would scout and confirm that she would be able to get out of whatever trap they have devised. But she does not want anyone to follow her.”
Joshua looked into Henton’s eyes. “And you do not know where she is to meet them?”
Henton, having spent years on a ship full of sailors and gamblers, met Joshua’s eyes and shook his head. “I have no idea where they are.” He took a deep breath, “If you think I am the least bit happy about this, you are mistaken. I am here because I am hoping that perhaps Will might still be in the city. Perhaps we can rescue him. With your permission, I would like to have….”
The door in the back of the room opened, interrupting Henton. A young woman, just a handful of years older than Stephenie, entered the room. Her brown hair pulled back into a long ponytail. She wore steel-grey robes and the holy symbol of Felis rested on her chest.
Henton bowed to her. “Your Excellency.”
“I heard shouting and felt raised emotions. What is going on with Stephenie?”
“Rebecca,” Joshua said, shaking his head, “she’s run off like a stupid little child. Someone with my mother’s seal has sent her a letter saying that they’ve taken William and will kill him unless she comes to them.”
“Your Majesty, Your Excellency, may I continue. I am in haste.”
Both Lady Rebecca and Joshua turned back to Henton.
“Stephenie has gone to confront those that claimed to take Will. She has Kas with her. However, she wants me to take some soldiers and, if possible, some holy warriors, so that I can go into the city and look for Will. We want to start at the playhouse where we last saw him. It’s possible that he may still be in the city and someone may have seen something.”
Lady Rebecca, High Priest of Felis, turned to Joshua. “It would be very bad if the High Priest of Catheri was taken and killed right out from under us.”
Joshua shook his head. “Why did she ever make that fool the High Priest? She should have taken on the role herself. A High Priest without the powers of the god? That is…that is just stupid. He would have been able to defend himself. He’s only a soldier, not a leader.”
Henton was often frustrated with Will and his willingness to bend rules and push boundaries, but to hear Joshua insult a man he mentored in the marines was almost too much. Knowing Joshua was already angry enough and this was not a time to pick a fight, Henton held his tongue, as he would not have if it had been Stephenie. Of course, she’d never behave like that.
Rebecca moderated her tone, but there was power in her voice. “Josh, I happened to approve of Stephenie’s choice. But regardless, at this point, we need to try to recover him. If you allow the church of Catheri to fall, then you risk the people’s support for Stephenie as well. This is still a point of contention in the kingdom.” Lady Rebecca turned to Henton, “We can send some people after Stephenie and some with you.”
“The stubborn girl ran off without telling anyone where she was going.”
Henton kept his face emotionless under Joshua’s glare. While the king might suspect he had lied, he had no proof. However, Rebecca had the power to enter his mind and find out if she chose to do so.
Rebecca spoke first, “Then we’ll send people with Henton. The only trouble is we don’t have that many here in the castle at the moment.”
Joshua shook his head. “Send a squad of soldiers and only one holy warrior with Henton. I’ll send others out to find which direction she went and then pursue her. I’ll not let my mother’s men have off with her.”
Henton cleared his throat, “Your Majesty, she did not want people pursuing her. She feared they would harm Will if they saw a force coming.”
Joshua turned back to Henton, his eyes narrowed, “He’s simply a soldier who was supposed to be protecting her, as you were. His role is to die in that effort if needed and I’ll gladly trade him for her. The stupid girl will get herself killed.” He turned back to Rebecca. “One holy warrior for Henton, have the rest that are available gather in the court yard. They should ride north to the bridge over the Uthen River. If she crossed there, someone will have spotted her and we can narrow the search for her.” He turned back to Henton. “Get out of my sight.”
Henton bowed and quickly retreated from the King’s chamber. He started walking back to the stairs and stopped when Lady Rebecca called to him from behind.
“Henton, go to the stables and tell them to get some horses ready. You’ll want to get there before Josh sends orders for the horses to be used to go after Steph.”
“I’ll have someone come to you with some soldiers.”
Lady Rebecca put her hand on Henton’s shoulder and squeezed it. “Josh is angry and he can overreact. He’ll come to his senses once he has a chance to think about it.”
“Ma’am, if I may speak freely?” Henton waited until Rebecca nodded her head. “Stephenie will risk herself for Will. If His Majesty does something that gets Will killed, she’s likely to react far more harshly than His Majesty. It’s not a threat; she loves her brother, but she is passionate when it comes to protecting the people she cares about.”
Rebecca nodded her head. “Understood. Get some horses and be ready to leave. I’ll send Lady Sara and some soldiers to you. I am a High Priest, so I have the power to make some decisions myself, and I will bring Josh around.”
“Sir Henton,” yelled a soldier running from the gatehouse.
Henton turned his head briefly to take note of the youthful guard, but continued to mount the horse a stable hand held for him. The sun was already in the last quarter of the sky and finding Will after it turned dark would be that much harder; he did not have time for more delays.
“Sir Henton,” the boy panted, obviously in need of conditioning. “There’s man…at gate…says he saw…His Excellency taken.”
Henton dismissed the thought of asking the soldier for more details; the boy needed to spend time running back and forth from the castle to the city until he could do it without passing out. Kicking the horse forward, Henton managed to stay on, but his legs and hands were flailing about in a most undignified manner; he knew he needed his own training.
Lady Sara gracefully passed him on the way to the gatehouse, and using her horse to help guide Henton’s, they both arrived still mounted. Behind the two of them, Douglas and two other soldiers followed more slowly. The rest of the soldiers were still saddling horses.
At the gatehouse, Henton slid from the saddle, feeling too uncomfortable in the unfamiliar setting. One of the dozen guards standing under the raised portcullis took the reins from Henton as another led him over to a thin man in his early thirties. Henton recognized the man’s tanned face and rough-cut hair from the playhouse.
“Sir,” the man said, bowing at the waist. “Forgive me, My Lord, I do not know your name.”
“You can call me Henton, but don’t delay; I was told you saw Will taken.”
The man righted himself and nodded his head. “Yes, My Lord. I was cleaning and repairing some canvas near the back of the stage. I heard a commotion and steel ringing against armor. Uncertain, I looked around the corner and His Excellency was grabbed by a group of men. The High Priest’s soldiers looked to have been overwhelmed. I could swear I saw a holy symbol around the neck of at least one of the men who took His Excellency.” The man cleared his throat. “I panicked and ran back to the stage, but no one followed. When I heard the back door bang, I poked my head around the corner again and they were gone and so was His Excellency.”
“How many men?”
The man shook his head as he ran his hands through his hair. “I was scared. Maybe a dozen. Counting them was not in my thoughts and it was dark behind the stage. It took me a moment to even build the courage to check when I heard them leave. But, when I walked past His Excellency’s men, I knew them to be dead. However, I wasn’t that long,” he quickly added, “because I knew His Excellency was in danger. But when I went out the back door, they were gone into the wind. I ran down to Fairnessway, the street that runs beside the playhouse, but there was no sign of them.” The man looked between Henton and Lady Sara. “I ran straight here after that. I wanted to warn the Prophet.”
Henton’s mind was racing and all he wanted to do was get to the playhouse as quickly as possible. On his way back to his horse, he asked over his shoulder. “What’s your name?”
“Arn, My Lord.”
Putting his foot into the stirrup, Henton pulled himself up and onto the saddle. “Arn, thank you for the report. Please allow these men to take you to report to His Majesty. He’ll want to hear what you saw as well.” Looking at the guard that had escorted Arn to Henton, he added, “And make sure you get Arn something to eat.”
Seeing the other fifteen soldiers following from the stables, Henton kicked his horse, which lurched into motion. He pulled on the reins, slowing and directing the horse out of the gatehouse and toward the city of Antar.
Lady Sara quickly caught up and shook her head. “Don’t kick; just squeeze his sides gently with your legs to get him to move. And steady your hands. You’ll have him hating you if you keep jerking on his mouth like that.”
Henton nodded his head, but as he bounced along at a fast trot, he just could not seem to put the pieces together and Lady Sara continued to frown. He turned his head slightly, “I’ve never ridden a horse faster than a walk and that was a long time ago. I’m a bloody sailor.”
“Lean back and resist with your seat to slow him. You’ll fall off and so will Douglas if you try to keep this pace.”
Henton did not want to slow down, but he was feeling quite loose in the saddle and falling to the ground would not help them get to Will. Trying to do what the holy warrior said, he gradually managed to slow the large bay enough so he could concentrate on more than just staying on the horse.
“What are you thinking?” Lady Sara asked as they approached the southern edge of the city.
“If what Arn said is true, then they sent the message to Stephenie well before they had actually taken Will. It took me at least half a turn of the glass to keep His Majesty from hanging me for letting Steph leave on her own and more time to gather the soldiers. If they had grabbed Will before sending the note, Arn should have arrived first or at least, about the same time.”
“What do you think it means?” Douglas asked from behind them.
Henton glanced at Douglas, “I’m hoping it means they’ve divided their forces, but I fear it means Will’s dead and the others have gone off to tighten the trap around Stephenie.
The sun had already reached the horizon and was setting fast by the time Henton and the others reached the old playhouse in the southeast part of the city. The distance from the castle was not all that great, but Henton could already feel the forming of blisters on his legs where the stirrups had pinched him against the saddle flap.
Dismounting in front of the playhouse, he quickly led Douglas, Lady Sara, and a handful of soldiers to the closed front doors. “Douglas, head down the side road and see if anyone still around might have seen anything unusual. Don’t mention to anyone who was taken. Take six men with you.”
Douglas silently broke off, pointing to the trailing six men to follow him. Henton knew Douglas could handle the task with less instruction, but he wanted the other soldiers to hear his orders. Focusing on his own task, he stepped forward and gave the playhouse doors a hard shove. The blow popped the old lock out of the wooden doors and Henton moved quickly through the short tunnel under the upper seats and into the open area in front of the stage. “Do you sense anyone?” he asked of Lady Sara as he kept to the right hand wall in case there was anyone in the seats above them.
The priestess paused and held her holy symbol for a moment before shaking her head. “I can’t feel anyone nearby except for us.”
Henton nodded his head and moved forward, cutting across the open area despite the uneasiness it caused him. “Let me know if that changes,” he said over his shoulder, hoping the others would keep up.
At the stage, he easily launched himself up and onto the four-foot high platform. Nimbly rolling back to his feet, he moved to the back wall and slid closer to the door. Despite Lady Sara’s assurance, he could not bring himself to charge through the opening into the dark rooms behind the stage.
Peaking around the corner, he let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Looking on the positive side of the fading light, he was not sun blind and so he did not have to wait long. Checking for any obvious traps that might have been left, he carefully moved through the opening and into the backroom. His hard-soled boots, deftly used on the wooden floor, hardly made a sound as he walked.
Frowning as the others followed with less grace and more noise, he noted the iron smell of spilled blood. Giving up on stealth, he quickened his pace. Moving beyond the passage directly behind the stage, he descended a series of wobbly steps to the larger storeroom that held the rear door of the playhouse. Lady Sara’s sudden intake of breath told him she had noticed the bodies lying about the room.
Still being careful to watch for any traps those who took Will might have left, he moved among the carnage. Henton recognized all of Will’s guards and noted three other men among the dead. Most of Will’s men were soldiers who had been in the Greys when Stephenie had brought down the mountain peak. All of them had been released from service to the King and had embraced Will’s message.
“I count eight of them,” Sara said.
Henton noticed the shudder run through her body and reminded himself that she was young. Too young to even have fought much in the war. Standing straighter, he looked toward the soldiers that Lady Rebecca had sent with him. “Three of you check the rest of the playhouse to see if there are any others. Be careful, just in case they left traps.” He turned to Sara, “We’ll assume that Arn’s story is correct and they took Will from here.” Without waiting for a response, he headed to the back door and carefully pushed it open. Behind him, he noted a change in illumination as one of the soldiers lit an oil lamp to aid in their search.
Henton stepped out into the very narrow alley that ran behind the playhouse. A couple people could walk abreast or one-person ride a horse down the street, assuming the rider would duck to avoid the signs and overhangs. Squatting down, he examined the ground. At one time, the alley had been nicely cobbled, but years of dirt and neglect had taken its toll and only a few cobbles were visible through the sediment. Looking to his right, the alley opened into the busier side street that even at this time of day had a fair amount of foot traffic.
To his left, the narrow alley continued for as far as he could see. At its high point, the buildings here had been shops and high quality flats. However, time had taken its toll on more than the cobbles. From where Henton squatted, he could see many of the buildings boarded up and abandoned. This part of town had still not recovered from when all the people left Antar in fear of the war. The low cost nature of renting the almost abandoned playhouse was one of the reasons Will had been using it.
Looking down at the ground again he exhaled; there was not a lot of traffic down the alley, but enough that no clear tracks could be discerned. Perhaps if I had learned to be a land tracker. Standing, he moved to the far side of the alley as Douglas entered from the side street. Douglas shook his head ‘no’ as he approached. Henton nodded and motioned the others to follow him deeper into the alley.
“You think they went this way?” Lady Sara asked at just above a whisper.
Henton held back an irritated retort; he was not used to explaining himself in the middle of a conflict. Making allowances for her youth and knowing he needed her help, he quietly responded to her. “Someone would have noticed them if they went the other way. And there are a lot of abandoned buildings here. Since Arn didn’t see them running away, I’m guessing they are hold up close by. Keep your senses open and let me know if you feel them.”
Sara cleared her throat. “There are limits to what I can sense.” Acknowledging Henton’s look, she nodded her head. “I will do what I can.”
“We’re looking for Will and perhaps a dozen men, maybe less since at least three of them fell in the playhouse. Steph’s mentioned before that soldiers feel different to her than average people; harder, more reserved.”
“If I sense them, I will let you know. But my range is limited, and there will be others about.”
“Not many, most of these buildings are abandoned.” Henton said no more as he continued to move carefully down the street. With Douglass and Sara, there were seventeen people following him. Even if that made it better odds, the trouble would be getting Will out of danger while the soldiers engaged each other. And hoping Sara can handle any holy warriors they might have.
After another hundred paces, he stopped. “Anything?”
Lady Sara frowned. “There are a number of people in that building just ahead of us. I can’t tell much. The buildings we’ve passed have been empty or just had a couple people in them.” She looked up at him with her brown eyes, “How did you know to stop here?”
Henton leaned away from the building they were standing against and looked up at the one he suspected. “First, if Arn followed with any reasonable speed, they would not have been able to get far or he’d have seen them. Second, this building up ahead is boarded up, but the boards over the windows have larger gaps and those gaps were recently exposed. Probably to watch for trouble or shoot through.”
Stepping back so he was again crouched against the building, he looked down the line of soldiers. The war had taken most of the older soldiers, as well as a large number of the younger ones. He was dealing with a couple of seasoned men, and the rest were fresh recruits who just came of age over the summer.
Turning back to Sara, he finished his explanation. “If the gaps had just been sun faded, I wouldn’t have noticed it in the failing light, but there was an old whitewash done on the building at one point and the boards that were moved exposed the bright color under them.”
Douglas crowded closer, pushing Sara into Henton. “What’s the plan? We can’t charge in the front and there are no back doors. I know from walking the area with Will, this is a long row of buildings wall to wall, back to back.”
Henton glanced behind himself and down the alley. Fortunately, there were no side branches to worry about watchers and the lane was just too narrow for things to be left out to hide behind. “Anyone inside this building?” he asked Sara, indicating the one they were standing against.”
She closed her eyes and concentrated, then after a moment, shook her head ‘no’.
“Is Will upstairs or down? How many men are guarding him?”
Sara shook her head, annoyance clear in her eyes. “I can’t tell. There are a number, but I can’t sense where they are exactly.”
“Can you at least tell if they are on the first or second floor?”
“First floor.” She paused a moment. “Her Highness can sense what you’re asking?”
Henton ignored the question. “Douglas, get into this building quietly and take the soldiers with you.” Henton nodded to the soldier just behind Douglas, “private, what’s your name?”
Henton bit back the comment that he was not a ‘Sir’, Joshua had changed that by making him a knight. “The shirt under your armor, it doesn’t look the proper color.”
The private swallowed. “No, Sir. I ruined my uniform and had to borrow this from my brother. I—”
“You’re not in trouble. I want you to strip out of your armor so you don’t have any colors on. I’d ask Douglas to do it, but I expect they would recognize him or me on sight.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I’m expecting they didn’t lease the building, so I want you to go up there, knock on the door and demand that they pay you some money or you’ll threaten to turn them into the owners of the building and the city guard.”
“I want you to be a distraction while I take position in the building. Make sure you stay far enough out in the street that they can’t grab you and drag you in.” Turning to Douglas, he continued. “Have someone watching from the door here, if there is trouble, have someone with a crossbow shoot them so Sam can get away.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going in through the second floor and will come down from the inside. This building,” he indicated the one beside them with his head, “is a single story and I saw a shuttered window on the side of their building. Once I’m in, cause the distraction, then give me another count of one hundred and come back to the front door and charge in. Creep low under the windows and they might not see you.”
“How are you going to get up there without them noticing?” Sara asked, a bit of concern in her voice.
“You’re a holy warrior, right? I want you to fly me up there.”
“What?” She shook her head. “We crush people, fling them from walls, and knock them to the ground. I’ve heard that Her Highness can fly you, but—”
“Then fling me up onto the roof and I’ll manage from there. You just have to push from the ground against the bottom of my feet.”
Sara took a deep breath and nodded her head. “I will try.”
“Sarge?” Douglas asked, reverting to his old title. “What if they have a holy warrior of their own?”
Henton nodded his head. “For our sake, I’m hoping they sent them all to capture Steph, but Sara, you will need to be ready to fight their mag…” he was about to use Stephenie’s term of ‘magic’, “fight their power.”
The soldier behind Sam peeked his head around, “door’s open, Sir.”
Henton nodded as the line of soldiers filed into the abandoned building. “Get changed, Sam.” He turned back to Sara, “Just think of it as a pass or fail exam. You fail, several of us are likely to die.”
She glared at him for a moment and then nodded her head. “I’ll try, but this will likely hurt.” She stepped back and leaned out to get a view of the window. With her head, she motioned for Henton to step into the middle of the alley. Grabbing her holy symbol with both hands, she closed her eyes and started to mumble some words that Henton could not quite hear. The last thing Henton noticed before his legs buckled under him was Sam handing off his armor to Douglas.
Grunting under the pain of what felt like landing from a three-story jump, Henton flailed his arms about as he rose well above the height of the two-story roof. His stomach dropped and he expected he was going to feel a lot of pain as he started to drop the thirty feet toward the tiled roof. Having fallen from halfway up a mast before, he resisted the urge to tense his body, but was not prepared for a second wave, of what Stephenie called gravitational energy, to hit him, launching him upward again. He knew his ankle was twisted from that impact and his seat bone radiated pain.
However, this time his flight was much less energetic and he was close to the two-story building. Reaching out desperately, he caught the edge of the roof as a third wave of energy collided with his legs, sending more pain through his ankle, but it slowed him enough that he was able to gracefully swing his feet into the windowsill.
Letting out the breath he had been holding, he let his nerves settle a bit before moving his hands one at a time from the edge of the roof to the top of the window that was centered in the wall. He refused to look down as he scooted to the right so he could pull open the shutter. An old latch resisted for a moment, but the weathered wood gave way and the shutter opened.
Henton looked at the opening and was thankful that the window was just an opening behind the shutter. Perhaps at one time mica panes or even glass might have been used, but the building had been stripped of most of its valuable parts long ago.
Carefully moving in through the opening, he took a moment to glance back at the street below and gave the frightened Lady Sara a smile. Despite the fact that the ride had been painful and somewhat terrifying, she had managed to get him into the window and that was what counted. She’s not Steph, but it’s good to have magic on our side.
Taking a quick look around the room, he suspected the small space had been a bedroom. Currently, dust covered the wooden floor, which showed the passing of recent feet, but nothing else remained in the room.
Not moving for fear of the floor creaking, Henton craned his head to look through the single door on the other side of the room. Beyond the partially ajar door was a dimly lit hall. He could see a couple more doors down the hall. One was off its hinges and leaning against a wall. There was also what appeared to be a staircase going down toward the back of the building. Fortunately, no one seemed to be present.
He took a tentative step forward and winced as he put weight on his ankle. The floor groaned ever so slightly. Very slowly, he shifted his weight forward, but did not take another step. Holding position, he drew out his sword and a throwing knife he carried ever since a Mytian pirate incident during his second month at sea.
After what felt like a whole turn of the glass, Henton heard pounding on the front door of the building as well as footsteps and voices downstairs. Moving as gracefully as he could, he crossed the narrow room and slipped into the hallway. Downstairs, he could hear Sam raising his voice and generating a commotion. However even with the cover, by the time he reached the stairs, he was certain there would be half a dozen men waiting for him because of the noise he had caused. Peaking around the corner, he was relieved there was no one present. The stairs, he noted, made a right turn at the back wall and continued to the first floor.
Out front, Sam’s demands might have been answered, because the commotion had stopped and there was no sound of violence. Henton considered taking the first step down the stairs, but held back. While old floors always creaked and groaned under one’s feet, old stairs tended to scream at being used and if Douglas stuck to the plan, it would be a hundred count before he could expect reinforcements.
After reaching a count of eighty, Henton rolled his shoulders and prepared himself for conflict. After counting another thirty-five, he heard pounding on the door again and the people below saying something angrily in Kyntian. Knowing he would still need to find Will, Henton moved quickly down the stairs and paused only briefly before rounding the corner at the back wall.
He emerged from the stairwell in a dimly lit kitchen that was illuminated by an oil lamp sitting on a worktable. He immediately noticed Will gagged and bound to a chair on the far side of the room. To Henton’s immediate right, two men stood listening against a door leading to the front part of the building. One had already turned at the sound of Henton descending the stairs. That black hair man cried out an alarm as Henton threw his knife.
The knife struck the man in the shoulder, but that man was already rushing toward Henton. The second man reacted a little slower, but headed for Will.
Cursing, Henton switched his sword to his right hand and deflected the black haired man’s knife thrust in the process. The second man was drawing a short blade as he closed on Will.
Limited by the close confines of the small kitchen, Henton pushed forward into the black haired man, punching him in the face with the crossbar of his sword while grabbing his throwing knife from the man’s shoulder with his left hand. The move staggered the man back, but not before he sliced through the leather of Henton’s gambeson.
“He die!” the second man said with broken speech, pointing his blade at Will while looking at Henton.
Henton kicked out the knee of the black haired man to buy more time and moved toward Will and the second man. Steph, we need you here, he swore while wishing for once that he had magic of his own.
Will caught his eye and then flung back his bruised and battered head, causing his chair to tip backward, buying his upper body some distance from the blade.
The Kyntian man cursed, considered trying to stab the falling Will, but turned to engage Henton, who had closed the distance. The Kyntian deflected Henton’s thrust with a short blade and tried to grapple with Henton’s left hand to tie up his throwing knife.
Not bothering to curse the fact he brought the wrong sword for this close quarter combat, Henton dropped the blade, grabbed the man’s left forearm, fell backwards to the floor, and using his good foot, launched the startled man over him and into the black haired man who had regained his feet.
Scrambling to turn himself around, Henton gained his feet before the others, who were struggling to untangle themselves. Not hesitating, Henton kicked the second man in the face, stopping his struggles and leaving him on top of the black haired man. The sounds of conflict came loudly from the front part of the building, but the two men he had disabled were blocking the door.
Turning, Henton quickly went to Will, and using his knife, cut away the rope tying his arms and legs to the chair. With his right hand, covered red in his own blood that was running down his arm, Henton pulled Will to his feet and then helped him remain there. After a moment, Will removed the gag from his mouth, while Henton turned back to the two men. The black haired man was working his way to his feet when the door flew open to allow Douglas and Lady Sara entry.
The black haired man dropped the knife he was holding, raised one hand, and used the other to put pressure on the shoulder wound Henton had given him. “I surrender,” he said with a heavy accent.
“You good, Sarge?”
Henton nodded his head. “How’s it out there?”
“Two dead on our side, plus a few injuries. We’ve got people taking care of them. What about you and Will?”
Will nodded his head, but was barely holding his feet. He inclined his head to the black haired man, “That bastard did the worst to me.”
Douglas stepped closer to the man who had backed into the wall.
“Demand prisoner of war.”
Douglas moved quickly, striking the man in the gut with a fist and then bringing his knee up into the man’s face. The black hair man slipped to the floor and Douglas dropped a knee into his back so he could tie the man’s hands.
“You are bleeding,” Lady Sara said to Henton.
“See to Will first. I’ve just got one cut and it’s not too bad yet.” Henton moved over to the man he had kicked in the face while he pulled a bandage from a pocket in the gambeson. A quick check told him the man was dead, likely a broken neck. Henton frowned. He had let his anger at the man get to him. That kick to the face was not something he was proud of doing.
“Let me tie that off, Sarge,” Douglas said, coming over after having secured the black haired man. “He might think he’s going to get an easy death as an enemy soldier, but I think the King will show him otherwise.”
Henton walked over to the black haired man, who had rolled onto his side. “Who and how many were sent to capture Stephenie?”
The man sneered. “I do the work of gods. I say nothing to help you save the witch.”
Henton stood up; afraid he would kill the man if he tried to talk with him more. “How’s Will?” he asked Lady Sara instead.
The holy warrior looked up and turned toward Henton. “He’s got lots of cuts and bruises; some are deep. It will take time.”
Henton nodded, “See to it.” Two of the soldiers had come into the kitchen and started to drag the dead man out of the small room, to them he said, “Send three people to find some reinforcements. I want this place secure until Will can be moved. Plus, I want to see what we can do to help Steph.”
“Sarge, we don’t know where she is, remember.”
“The King thinks she’s north of Antar, that’s good enough for me.” He limped over to Douglas, “But my ankle’s twisted and there’s no way I can ride there.” He closed his eyes and balled up his fists. “I just hope she can manage for a time on her own.” He turned to look at the black haired man. “If they do manage to capture her, Josh will get the details of their travel plans from these men. Lady Rebecca will rip it from them if need be.” Of course, we’ll need her and a lot more holy warriors to go after Steph if they’ve sent someone who can actually take her.
Henton was cursing the King, albeit silently, when additional soldiers finally arrived. There were two more priests and a handful of men to start questioning and preparing the prisoners to be removed to the castle. The holy warriors he had hoped for had already been sent north and he would not be included in the effort to help Stephenie.
The two priests helped Lady Sara treat the wounded, which included himself, and while his arm was no longer bleeding, his ankle was still sore and the three with magic were exhausted by the time they were done with the immediate healing. One forgets just how powerful Steph is, though I don’t want her healing me.
“Sarge,” Will said from where he was sitting in a more comfortable chair in the front room of the building, “you can head out to find her if you want. Douglas and I can handle things here.”
Henton wanted to agree, but too much time had passed and truthfully, these men were his responsibility. And mostly, without magic, I would be more of a distraction to Stephenie than any help. The best he could do would be to try to track the people, if they did actually take her, and for that, he would need to wait for the morning light. Since Kas had not come for him, perhaps Stephenie was safe. To Will, he shook his head, “I won’t do any good against what she faces.”