We rode toward the coast and made pretty good time. Ashrem didn’t want to push the horses too fast so that they would be ready to run if need be. It was hard to me to not worry about Eliza and the others after the story Os-tur told, but I knew that worrying about it wouldn’t do anything except give me a headache. Based on what he had told us, I knew that Eliza was the only one conscious when the soldiers arrived and I had to keep myself from thinking that any of the blood was hers.
Deciding that the best way to keep my mind off what was happening to Joel and the others, I figured conversation was the best course of action to occupy my mind. “How did you learn of this way into the castle?” I asked Ashrem.
“When Bloodmark came to Horsetower I escaped through them,” he answered, his eyes never leaving the path in front of us.
“What were you doing there to begin with?” Siofra asked.
“It was my home.”
Siofra’s expressed turned to one of surprise. “Who are you?”
He glanced back at her. “I am Ashrem Itemron.”
“Are you the true ruler of this land?” I asked.
“My father was.”
Siofra and I looked at each other in amazement that the women hadn’t mentioned this before. “Is your father alive?” she inquired.
“Bloodmark killed him, and my mother,” was his short, unemotional reply.
“Then you are the true ruler of this land,” I remarked, wondering how this new bit of information changed things.
I didn’t think that it was possible, but Ashrem’s spine got even straighter in his saddle. “At this point no one rules until Bloodmark is dead,” he commented, but I could hear his desire to see her removed from power in his voice.
“Well, today might be the day that you have to take over,” I told him. “She may have to die for us to succeed.”
He didn’t turn again when he spoke. “There’s no ‘might’. She will die.”
“Yeah,” Siofra breathed lowly.
“Okay, so it shall be,” I said, not sure that how I felt about the idea of it. Sure, Taeynd wasn’t the nicest person by any stretch of the word, but I had a hard time allowing myself to be part of killing her. She had kept Joel here as her prisoner and slave for two years and that angered me greatly, but I didn’t like being anyone’s judge and jury. It wasn’t my place to be something like that.
A few minutes of silence past before Ashrem turned to me. “Where did your sister train?” he asked me, meaning Eliza.
“The school of hard knocks,” I replied, my thoughts turning back to the fact that Eliza was being held by Taeynd and I hoped to Gaia that she and the others were still alive. I held tight to the feeling that if they weren’t that I would somehow know it. Eliza was the closest person in the world to me as well as my mother. Something time me that if she weren’t alive anymore that I would someone know.
Dwelling on the negative makes it real, I told myself as I prayed that she was okay. Willed it with all my being.
“I’ve never heard of that before,” Ashrem commented, reminding me that we weren’t in our world anymore and my witty euphemisms were lost on him. “Is it near here?”
“She’s been on her own since she was about your age,” I explained, knowing that I would never tell him the whole story so I hoped he didn’t ask too many more questions. “She’s lived a long time; she’s had to fight in the streets to survive.”
Ashrem looked back at me. “She had no family to care for her?”
I remembered Kate and the few stories that that I had managed to get out of Eliza about her vampiric mother. “At that point, no.”
“I can’t see how she could pick up the skills to kill so many of Bloodmark’s black guards,” Ashrem commented, clearly perplexed. “La’usel said she was a Dagger?”
I shrugged. “Some may call her that.”
“My mother was a Dagger,” he said with pride.
“What exactly is a Dagger?” Siofra asked.
Ashrem turned to her. “Your brother-wife is a Dagger and you don’t know what one is?” he asked.
Siofra shook her head. “Nope. We’re not from here,” she explained.
“Daggers are women trained in weapons and defense.”
“That’s Eliza,” I said with a grin.
Ashrem continued. “They guard persons of high rank and will defend them even until death.”
Siofra looked at me and nodded with a grin of her own. “Yes, that’s her.”
“And she learned her skills on the streets?” Ashrem asked.
“In the beginning,” I told him.
“Where we come from there are many ways of learning pretty much anything,” Siofra informed him, prompting Ashrem to name off three or four holdings she might have trained at in his world and Siofra shook her head to each one. “No, no, and um, no,” she told him.
Ashrem, of course, seemed confused. “I once knew all of the training centers for Daggers. They were trained here, once.”
“They will be again,” I assured him, trying to steer the conversation away from the fact that there was no way Eliza could have gone to any of those places since we weren’t from this land.
“As I said before, we are not from around here,” Siofra told him, echoing my thoughts, but not necessarily in a way that would take away his interest from the topic.
“So what do you do to support yourself?” I asked.
Ashrem glanced at me. “I am La’usel’s guard,” he said, as if I should understand everything by that statement. I got the feeling I was missing something.
“And that pays you?” Siofra asked.
Ashrem shrugged. “Yes, more or less.”
That didn’t seem to make sense to Siofra because she crinkled her nose and commented, “You’re the would-be ruler of this kingdom, and you’re just guarding someone?”
Ashrem glanced at her and his expression said that he couldn’t believe what she was asking. “If Bloodmark knew I lived, I would be dead,” he explained carefully. “And it is the way of our people for the men to guard the women.”
I turned to Os-tur, who had been quiet up till now and said, “That must be what you are to Peorth.” I think I was finally understanding a little.
The other man nodded. “Yes, I am.” I nodded in understanding and he asked, “Do you have no guard?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“She has her family,” Siofra told him.
I shrugged and smiled at him. “We protect each other.”
“But you have a guard,” Ashrem said to Siofra.
“I have a husband,” she corrected.
“Some times there is no difference,” he replied.
“I can take care of myself,” she told him.
Ashrem studied her for a moment, and then a knowing smile sprang to his features. “You’re a witch, aren’t you?” he asked.
Siofra smiled back. “Yes, I am,” she confessed.
Ashrem regarded her a little differently now. “Then you can take care of yourself,” he conceded.
“Yes I can. I said that before.”
“So do you only guard one person at a time, or multiple people?” I asked, wanting to know how it worked. “Do you guard all three of them, or just the one?”
Ashrem nodded. “When necessary, I guard all three, but La’usel is my charge.”
“Your charge?” I asked, not understanding the term.
“My Lady,” he explained. “I’m bound to her for a year and a day, or longer if we both find it agreeable.”
“Are you like her husband as well?” Siofra wanted to know.
Ashrem shook his head in embarrassment. “Oh, no. She’s too old for me.”
“My husband is much older than I am,” Siofra told him.
“It is different when a man is older,” he replied adamantly.
“Is there a girl that you are interested in?” I asked, wondering if he was so unwavering because someone else had caught his interest.
Ashrem look slightly embarrassed again. “There is one,” he confided slowly, watching the road ahead.
“Really?” I asked. “What is she like?”
He then told us about a strong girl who was hard willed and stubborn. One who did not always listen to her mother as she should. But there was something missing from his story. Something that made me wonder if he even knew the girl he was speaking of. There was a surety to his voice, but the fact that he never gave her name or spoke of any time spent with her that made me wonder.
“That sounds familiar, Corrinemackenzie,” Gwrhyr said in my head, pulling me from my thoughts and causing me to give him a look that said he wasn’t funny.
“She works hard at learning,” Ashrem finished.
“She lives in the village then?” I asked, wondering if I had seen the girl he spoke of and if she knew he liked her. “You grew up with her?”
Ashrem shook his head. “No, she lives far away.”
“How did you meet her?”
Ashrem never answered my question because at that moment he looked off toward Horsetower and said, “We’re nearly to the cliffs.”
We left the horses in a small stand of trees near the cliffs. Ashrem led the way into the unsteady terrain that was at the base of the high rock walls about twenty feet away and I was happy to be off the horse and on my feet again. I wasn’t used to long hours riding like I’d done as a kid on the farm and my butt was killing me.
Once we were at the base of the cliff, Ashrem soon found a stony path that was hidden until just as we reached it that led downward. It wasn’t an easy path, but we managed, Ashrem leading, then Siofra and myself, and finally Os-tur and the wolf bringing up the rear. We carried torches to light our way and packs that held food, water and the cloaks strapped to our backs. Ashrem recommended that we not use magick until it was absolutely necessary because Taeynd would know.
We walked in relative quiet until we came to a small cave where we would now have to crawl about twenty feet on our hands and knees in order to get through. Once on the other side Ashrem said that we were officially in Horsetower, which caused Siofra and I to then pulled out our cloaks and put them on. As soon as I had mine on I disregarded Ashrem’s recommendation and used magick to try sense the people they’re looking for, but I came up empty handed.
“Where does this tunnel end?” Siofra suddenly asked Ashrem.
He glanced at her. “In the Chamber of Torment.”
Sounds like a charming place, I found myself thinking to myself as I tried to keep my thoughts from going to the fact that we might find all of them there. Now that we were so close, the only thing I could think of was getting to Eliza and the others and getting them the hell out of there. “Can’t we go any faster?” I asked Ashrem. I had edged in front of Siofra when we started again and was close behind the young man. I knew that I was pushing him and doing some serious invasion of personal space, but I didn’t really care.
“If we go too fast, we’ll be heard,” he cautioned.
I tried once again to sense any of them and this time I was successful in locating Joel. Unfortunately, what I was feeling was that he was unconscious and that only made me want to get to him that much quicker. I wondered where Mac and Eliza were and why I couldn’t find them and I wanted to run.
Regrettably, I knew that there was no way Ashrem was going to let me do that, so I decided to bide my time. Siofra was unusually quiet as well, so I was surprised when her voice broke the silence to ask Ashrem how much longer before we arrived at the entrance.
“About ten minutes,” he told her. She fell silent once again after that and I wondered if she were talking to one of them. If she were, then it was likely that she was talking to Glenn.
After about five minutes Siofra spoke up again, “Ashrem, we need to step it up a little.”
He looked back at her as we continued. “Why?”
“Eliza’s unconscious, Mac is bartering for everyone’s release in a rather nice room, and Glenn’s getting pissy,” she informed us, her first comment causing my heart to stop in my chest.
Ashrem glanced back at her questioningly, but to his credit didn’t say anything, just continued to move forward. Apparently this wasn’t his first exposure to magick users so I was glad that we didn’t have to explain anything to him.
For a third time I used my own magick in an attempt to locate any of the four people we were looking for. Surprisingly enough I found Mac first, even though he was the furthest away from us. He was fairly healthy, only having a few minor injuries, and I was able to determine that he was higher in the keep than the others were. Glenn was okay as well and located very close to the next person I found. It took me a minute to realize that it was Eliza because as Siofra had already informed us, she was unconscious and injured very badly.
Joel was the last person I sensed. He was slowly regaining consciousness again and was in a considerable amount of pain that he could feel more and more as he woke up. He was on same level as Glenn and Eliza, which would make it easier to locate him, and I could feel that he had many injuries, but not as many as Eliza had. I knew that we would have an easier time of getting him, Glenn and Eliza, but I had no idea how we would get Mac since he was on a higher floor and would no doubt be under stricter guard.
“We need to pick up the pace,” I said, worried that if Eliza didn’t get immediate medical attention she might not make it. “Where are we coming into the castle?”
“The Chamber of Torment,” Ashrem repeated, making me think that was where Joel was since he was the closest to us.
“How soon will we be there?”
“Why do you feel the need to hurry?” Os-tur questioned from the back of the line. “I realize that they are all in danger, but why the sudden urgency?”
I looked back at him to answer. “Two of those that we seek are seriously injured. Mac is higher up in the castle, meaning that he’s separate from them. We’re going to have to find him.”
“We’ll have to find them all,” he pointed out.
I nodded and continued to move forward. “Well, I can locate them.”
“You should listen to your father and follow his wishes,” Gwrhyr said in my head before starting to list several times when those who should have listened to their father didn’t and came to a bad end. I had the feeling that Siofra was included in the conversation, but I wasn’t sure.
“And what are his wishes?” I asked the wolf since Mac hadn’t told me what he was planning, but Siofra, so I felt no need to allow him to continue with his crazy idea. Eliza watched him die twice already; I wasn’t about to let it happen a third time.
“He wishes you all to leave as he is bartering for everyone’s release.”
I felt my eyes narrow as I looked down at the wolf again in the torch light. “Is he included in this bartering?” I asked dryly.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Siofra said, adding the conversation for the first time and confirming that Gwrhyr had been speaking to her as well.
“He was not specific, but I’m sure…”
“Then why don’t you specifically ask him if he’s included?” I interrupted, wanting nothing more than to drop this line of conversation. Mac wasn’t getting left behind and that was that.
But the wolf didn’t get my drift. “Cormacalaster is a bright boy, I’m sure he has a way out.”
It was a good thing that I choose not to answer him because at that point a bubble of fluctuating blue light suddenly appeared around us as we continued to move down the tunnel.
“By Ishonmir’s beard, what was that?” Os-tur asked as he started to pull his sword from its sheath.
“Just a little bit of protection,” Siofra answered as if he should have known what the bubble was.
I glanced behind me just in time to see him push the sword back in its sheath as he muttered, “I hope you’re not getting us caught before we even get in.”
“I’ve been using magick all along,” she replied without looking at him. “Relax.”
Finally, Ashrem slowed and motioned for the rest of us to be quiet as we came close to the end of the tunnel where it became a wall of stone about thirty feet ahead of us. I sensed the area around us, expanding my perception into the room ahead and the first thing I felt was how aggressive the people in the room were. I was also aware of Joel, the current of his being filling me with a sense of calm that I needed to keep a level head.
I felt Gwrhyr pop out suddenly as I continued to probe what was happening in the castle above us. There was a thin spot in the stone, one that might indicate the way in that Ashrem had promised, the door.
Siofra edged around me and came to an abrupt halt. “Stop, I’ve got to do something,” she said, reaching behind her for me. “Hold my hand. I have a way to get them out. You need to help me.”
I took a tight hold of her hand without hesitation. “We’re going to do one at a time,” she explained, “starting with Glenn.”
I felt her drawing on my magick before I had a chance to argue that Eliza and Joel both needed help more than Glenn, but the amount of energy she was drawing off of me quickly made me realize that we would need Glenn to help with whatever it was she was doing if we were going to get all of them out quick enough.
I heaved a sigh of relief when Glenn materialized next to Siofra and the two embraced. Then my aunt turned to me and asked, “Joel?”
I gave her a nod as I removed my pack long enough to pull out the extra cloak we had brought from the Fates. Glenn looked and me in confusion when I handed it to him and I said, “It lets you work magick.”
Glenn turned to his wife. “And you didn’t give it to me an hour ago because?”
Siofra rolled her eyes and told him crisply, “Put it on.”
I had no idea what we were doing or why we hadn’t done it before, but we linked hands again as Os-tur and Ashrem stood guard, waiting for the possibility that we might be discovered. Joel appeared in front of us and started to fall forward, face first toward the ground. I tried to catch him, but ended up going down as well so that he was on his side and I was on my knees. There was a great deal of blood on his clothing and he was covered with sweat and grim from whatever it was they had been doing to him. I laid my hands on his chest and used magick to try to heal him, but I wasn’t focusing properly and it didn’t work very well.
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