Callio gestured to Maple as they pulled the mattress back into position. “Not much time,” he said, in a whisper so quiet, Maple could hardly make out the words.
About to ask him what he meant, she opened her mouth, but he shook his head violently. His words came so fast she could hardly understand them. “You’re not safe, the way he’s leading you. Tanner is a former Ranger, and one of the ones who killed your father.”
“I know,” but he cut her off from saying anything more.
“You’re going into Halion’s lands, and if he gets hold of you, he’ll never let you go. He’s been wanting a piece of the Great Families for ages.”
“He didn’t keep Callan away, did he? Callan would have had you for sure if Tanner hadn’t stepped in. Doriel’s good and true, but he doesn’t understand politics as I do.”
“I have the ear of Sir Genessee himself, a powerful knight and, between you and me, the one who will be king after Halion fails to marry his son off.”
Maple remained silent, a faint memory of hearing that name among the merchants pushing forward.
“You’ll be safe there,” he continued. “Doriel can stay with you, Tanner can come, too, though I doubt he will.”
“Of course. I’m the key to getting you inside. That, and your lineage. Just give me the word and I’ll let Sir Genessee know you need protection. He’ll move heaven and earth to keep you safe.”
Callio straightened, looking up. Maple turned and saw Doriel approaching them. “Almost ready?” Doriel said.
“Yes,” Callio replied, as if no potential betrayal had been plotted. Maple didn’t like how easily he was able to lie.
Callio walked away and began to make his own bed on the ground. “What do you think?” Doriel asked Maple.
Had he heard them? “Of what?”
He raised his eyebrows, as if she needed to ask. But the tone of the look he gave her made her think he hadn’t heard anything.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Tanner seems all right.”
“He’s a good man. He always was, no matter how insubordinate he could be.”
“Insubordinate. Rebellious. He doesn’t always obey commands.”
“You don’t seem to mind.”
“We’re not at war. And he never ignored a command that made sense. Make sure your commands make sense and that the ones that don’t eventually will, and he’ll follow you anywhere.”
“You sound like someone who knows.”
He paused, caught, she realized, by her words. So, he either had had command at some point or had been close enough to see it in action. “Yes, mistress. And he’ll do the same for you. That’s why I’m speaking to you now.”
She grinned. “Is this a war council?”
He paused. “In a sense. What are your plans, mistress, now that we’ve caught up with Tanner?”
Stunned at the seriousness of this conversation, of the notion that she might actually be involved in something like a war council, she didn’t know what to say. “You want to see this Hushweather man, right?”
“I’d kind of assumed that’s what we were doing.”
“Not if you don’t wish it.”
She thought of Callan’s attack. “I don’t see how I have much of a choice.” She watched how he wouldn’t meet her eyes and realized he was nervous. “Something wrong?”
He shook his head. “I must apologize, mistress, for not protecting you adequately earlier. I should have never let Callan get that close to you.”
“You thought he was a friend.”
“He was never a friend.” The chill in those words was unmistakable.
“Then someone you could trust, maybe?”
He didn’t answer, which was answer enough. “We’re not even sure what he was going to do with me.”
“No, but I have a possibility.”
She waited, surprised at the pain in his eyes. And she thought, for a moment, she saw that red-haired man again, a smirk on his face, in Doriel’s eyes. “What is that?”
“I’ll find out more tonight. I don’t want to say anything more until I know more. But I must ask, mistress, that whatever happens, you stay true to yourself.”
And who am I, she wanted to ask. “What good will that do?”
“You had an ability, when you were young, to find a way out of any prison. Nothing held you for long. And I believe it’s because the person you are cannot be caged.” He smiled. “Not even by a powerful sorcerer-king.”
“Handlee kept me,” she pointed out. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in what I used to do.”
“True. But did he keep you by magic or by choice? Forgive me if the question is impertinent.”
His words knocked her off-balance. She’d tried to leave once, only once. And he was right. She had chosen never to try to escape again. She hadn’t thought it would work.
No. She hadn’t tried because she was afraid of what the consequence might be if she failed.
She’d chosen to stay.
The thought galled her, made her mad enough to kick the ground in frustration. How dare he…he had no idea what life was like in the guild. “Just don’t expect much of me.”
“As you command, mistress.” She looked for a faint grin, a sign that he was mocking her. Nothing. Instead, for a moment, she thought she saw understanding. And in his eyes, for a moment, she saw a vast expanse of forest, and a river, and whoever it was that looked out on the scene closed his eyes and turned back to a castle far off in the distance and the castle looked like a prison.
And for just a moment, she felt as if they had something in common.
“Sleep well.” He hesitated. “I must warn you that I will be searching for the one who watches you tonight. The search will not be long and I will never be far.”
In his eyes, she saw an enormous man, face twisted in rage, raising an axe. Hushweather.
“You’d rather avoid him if you can.”
“Yes. If I can. Sleep well.” He touched his hat and gave a small bow before turning away. He stepped up onto one of the rocks and sat on it, facing the way they’d come, with his back to the fire. Maple looked out at Tanner, at Callio, both of them asleep, and settled down into her makeshift bed in the wagon. And she thought of Callio’s offer as she imagined Doriel sitting all through the night, getting no sleep. He’d have to rest sometime. Elves couldn’t go without sleep forever. Could they? Of course not. He was going to kill himself, all for her, and she wasn’t worth the effort. Just a thief from Refuge with nowhere to go, while he could be a mercenary for any number of armies, or even the nomads. And if he’d had a command, so much the better.
The spell-song he sang drifted to her ears as lazily as smoke, relaxing her, lifting a burden she hadn’t even realized had been weighing her down. Does he know, she couldn’t help wondering. Does he know I’m worried about him, and is he trying to get me to sleep anyway?
With a frown, she decided to try. With him working so hard for her, she didn’t need to make his life any harder.
And as she drifted to sleep, she swore that she would find a way for Doriel to get some sleep himself, and soon.
Doriel waited until he’d sung the Song around them fully, until the perimeter’s barrier was impenetrable by all the magic he could think of, except perhaps by one user, before stepping off the stone. With a silence that was part nature and part training, he walked toward Tanner. Not surprisingly, Tanner lifted his head, fully awake.
They said nothing as they got up and walked to the edge of the campsite, still within the light of the fire. Long time since I used these, Tanner said, using the Ranger signs. The signs themselves were sparse, but they’d used them so often for conversations best not said out loud that it was easy to fill in the context and meaning.
What are your plans?
Tanner gave him a look that was a cross between annoyance and surprise. She really is in charge?
She’s young. And that was a long time ago.
Yes. Doriel paused, trying to think of the right signs. Once he had them, he said, She and I are, for now, together in mind. Callan and you both say Magnus is dead.
I know he’s dead, Tanner interrupted.
The oath would be stronger when he calls.
Doriel stared at his friend who shifted uncomfortably. After a long silence, Tanner signed, There was no need to question Callan. I know what he was told.
And what was that?
Long life. Forgiveness. Peace.
None of that—
Queen Willow asked us to save her niece and her brother’s family. She asked Hushweather, and he told her that it was better to destroy the root of a tree than keep chopping branches. She understood. But when they died…
You were to blame, Doriel finished.
That, Tanner signed, is why I could forgive you so easily. We never had easy choices.
Doriel paused, remembering a man distraught and how he’d walked away. You don’t know what my choices were.
I don’t need to. Tanner looked at the wagon where Maple slept mostly hidden from view. She’s not what I expected.
Not what any of us expected. Doriel felt his good humor fade. She’s been through much.
I imagine. Refuge is a town most masks think twice about entering if they go south.
What do you have to do to gain forgiveness?
From Magnus? Or from myself? Tanner smiled bitterly. I’ve done well. I put down those ghosts long ago. We wanted to save everyone. And Magnus is dead, or he wouldn’t have needed to bargain. You remember.
I do. Very well.
Neither said anything for a moment. Finally, Tanner signed, He said I would find peace if I brought Maple to him.
I said no, Tanner signed. He barely had my obedience when he was alive. He’s not getting any of it now that he’s dead.
But what is he?
Tanner shrugged. An illusion? A puppet?
Doriel shook his head. But who pulls the strings? And why? He thought for a moment. The dead can’t raise themselves.
No one said this is him.
But it felt too much like him, Doriel wanted to say. The magic was too much like what Doriel had felt when Magnus was alive and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to deceive one of his kind on this subject. Magic was highly respected among elves. The humans had even modeled their own kings after Galatdros, the Pointstar, leader of the elven kingdoms. Such as they were. If someone had managed to create an illusion of Magnus’s magic without Doriel being able to discover it, he’d be very surprised.
And there was still the unease he felt when he looked at the horizon. And the lights.
I’m going to find out tonight, he signed to Tanner.
The worn coin felt smooth enough under Doriel’s fingers. Thank you for this, he signed to Tanner.
It’s not perfect, but it will do very well. It had taken some time to look for a coin among the ones Tanner had brought that was worn enough to act as a disk.
It didn’t have to be perfect, he reminded himself. The power was not in the object, which was really nothing more than a symbol, but in the spell itself. However, he remembered his father saying, there are those who only see with their eyes. But even the disks used for this spell weren’t usually brightly polished. Holding it up to his mouth, he sang softly, feeling the warmth of the spell filling the disk. Good, he thought as he finished the sleep-protection spell. He could still use this magic. There were times since his oath when he’d wondered.
And there had been a long time when he hadn’t been able to cast at all. But that wasn’t the fault of the Song.
Holding it in his hand, he looked at Tanner who was fighting to stay awake. Stifling a yawn, Tanner said, I take it this is going to work?
Yes. I think it will.
Placing the disk next to Maple, he carefully checked the barrier. That made for two obstacles to whomever might want to spirit her away. The barrier might weaken as he searched, but the disk would hold. Though he wished he could have made both spells more powerful.
Pulling his thoughts to the present, he signed to Tanner, I’m going to sleep now, and see if I can’t find whoever is looking for her.
Tanner nodded and pulled his sword out of its hiding place inside his bedroll. No need, Tanner had said when Doriel had asked why he’d hidden it, to give anyone any ideas about whether or not he was staying. Drawing it out of its scabbard, Tanner sat facing the horizon.
Doriel sat down in front of a wagon wheel and leaned against it. Relaxing, he let himself drift slowly into sleep, trying his best to keep hold of the barrier spell for as long as he could.
This had to be quick.
Slowly, he reminded himself, and let himself relax. As he drifted off, he focused even more on the barrier spell, turning it into a continual chant. Nothing else existed but that spell.
The world where he slept drifted away.
The wind blew hard, but there was no mountain, no forest, nothing but blackness as far as he could see. Doriel lifted his hands and looked at them. Those he could see. And his arms and all the rest of him. He wasn’t in his Ranger uniform, except for the long, red feather that he himself had chosen to continue wearing as a reminder of that time in his life. Reminders, he had learned, were important, even to an elf.
No voice called to him, and yet there was a feeling in the air, similar to when Maple had first been attacked, that reminded him of those days. “Am I not important enough for you?” he asked the darkness.
Nothing. Not even a whisper. “It couldn’t be,” Doriel said, taking a tentative step forward, “that after all this time, you’ve grown afraid of me.” It couldn’t be Magnus. He would have revealed himself at the sound of that. Deciding to goad him just a little more, Doriel turned slowly, watching. “Just the barest hint of power and I’ve become the one Ranger you avoid? I didn’t even manage to kill you.”
There was a whisper, not of a voice but a sound like cloth brushing against cloth. It circled around him and he listened as he followed it, hoping to see further but the darkness obscured his vision of anything other than himself.
Because, he realized, this was the true location of whoever searched for her.
There was a chuckle, as familiar as his own kin though far more dreaded.
“It appears,” Magnus said, “that I’m not the one afraid.”
And then he was gone. From far away, Doriel heard Maple scream.