Maple carefully opened one eye. The stone roof above her was gone. Instead, the wide desert night sky stretched above as if there were no such thing as land, and all that existed was blackness and stars. Many, many stars. For a moment, it felt as if she were floating in them, as if the wagon were about to drift away.
And then the feeling was gone and she was entirely herself again.
They’d put her in the wagon, either Doriel or Callio, one of the two. The bedding was thick enough to make her comfortable, but she still felt the hard boards of the wagon underneath. A smell of grain and herbs caught her attention and she turned to see a box not far from her head. She lifted the latch and opened it, taking a large inhale. Vials and pouches full of pungent herbs. Medicines.
What would a mercenary…no, she was being stupid. Of all those who needed it, a mercenary needed healing most, she decided. There was nothing strange about it.
She lay back down and realized that not only were her thoughts more clear, but that she felt stronger. Sore, but stronger. Sitting up, she looked at the firelight. Callio and Doriel appeared to be having a conversation in low tones, so low she hadn’t realized it until now. Callio’s voice, however, began to rise, though she still couldn’t make out the words. He seemed emphatic about…something. Doriel listened mostly, but gave a small shake of his head now and then. He glanced toward the wagon and straightened as he noticed her. Callio stopped talking and turned to look at her.
Muttering curses inside her head, she gave a small wave and lay back down. If she’d laid down earlier she might have heard something worth listening to.
She looked up and saw Doriel looking down at her, making her jump. “Sorry,” he apologized with a sheepish smile. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” she admitted.
“Well enough to travel?”
His promise. “Yes, dear servant.”
He smiled and she found he looked far too handsome when he did. Sitting up again, and glad she could do so, she said, “But where, O Faithful Servant, are we going?”
“Where do you want to go?”
Time to test him, she decided. “North.”
He stilled, his smile frozen. “Where in the North?”
She shrugged. “The trade route north, that’s all. I shall give further directions as required.”
Her second attempt at sounding like the snotty brat of an aristocrat appeared, this time, to have the effect she wanted. He chuckled, though he still appeared uneasy. “Very well, mistress.”
All good humor vanished. “I thought I asked you not to call me that.”
“Speak as you just did, and I most certainly will.”
“Impudent elf,” she hissed. “I shall have you flogged.”
His smile vanished. Before she could apologize, it returned, though only with half the strength of before. “Of course, mistress. Once you find a pole, of course.” And he gestured to the barren wastes around them.
She found herself laughing, a sound she hadn’t heard from herself in…she couldn’t remember when. “Oh, go away, impudent elf.” She closed her eyes and dismissed him with a flick of her hand. “Take me to the North and all shall be forgiven.”
“It shall be done, mistress.”
She opened her eyes to see he was gone. And she found that made her sad.
She also, for some reason, didn’t like that his smile had vanished. Had he been flogged? Given how quickly he healed, it probably meant nothing to him. That, she thought to herself, would be nice, not to have wounds last, not to have scars. She had a few here and there. Small ones. Hidden. Small things. But to not have any? It was a wonder she couldn’t quite comprehend.
A noise above caught her attention. Callio had brought some supplies from the campsite, cooking utensils and supplies, and was placing them next to her. “Have to be careful with these,” he said. “Doriel’ll skin me if you’re uncomfortable while we travel.”
She watched him for a moment. “Where are we going, Callio?”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
She shook her head. “He asked me where I wanted to go.”
Callio gave her a look then that almost appeared to be suspicion. Of her? Or Doriel? “Did he? And what did you say?”
“That’s all?” The corners of his mouth tugged as if he were fighting laughter. “Ambitious, aren’t you?”
She tried to hide her irritation. “It’s where I want to go.”
“Because it’s not here.”
She looked away, unwilling to admit he was right. It didn’t feel good, knowing her thoughts were so clear to others.
“Well, you’ll have quite a protector.” Callio tightened ropes that held down some of the bags and boxes in the wagon.
“He’s certainly something,” she couldn’t help admitting.
“Well, being who he is, you know, I doubt you’ll run into any trouble.”
And he looked at her then as if expecting something. Confused, all she could think to do was smile and nod, pretending as if she understood.
He paused, his expression changing into one of puzzlement. No, feigned puzzlement. “He hasn’t told you who he is?”
“I wouldn’t know his name if he hadn’t told me.”
“But only part.” Callio sighed and finished his work. “Elves must always tell the truth but not always all of it.”
And with that, he climbed into the wagon’s driving seat. Unsure what to say, Maple repeated his words in her head. Doriel was obviously a mercenary. Mercenaries usually came from a priest’s personal guard or, in the desert, a tribe from the shifting sands. Most intimidated. A few had the skills to back it. What did they have in the North? Where had Doriel gained his skills? Or did elves naturally have the talents needed for a sword for hire? But whatever it had been, Doriel had apparently gained a reputation of sorts. And now that reputation was at her service.
Forget parentage. The first thing she’d need to learn was the reputation of her new servant.
Doriel climbed into the wagon. Callio said quietly from the front, “North?”
Instead of answering, Doriel looked at her. “Yes,” she said, unused to anyone looking to her for answers.
“Trade route, all right?”
“Very well.” Callio gave a command and the wagon lurched forward.
Maple had the sickening sensation that her situation had not improved. Not at all.
The sky to the west was crimson and gold when she decided how to speak to Doriel about his past. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but it would within the next hour. Taking a deep breath, she said, “You said if I was well enough to travel, you would tell me about my parents?”
“I did.” Again, a slight hesitation. He didn’t want to talk about this. “What do you wish to know?”
No, he didn’t want to talk about this at all. But there was no other way she could think of to get him to indirectly reveal himself. “I was always told my parents abandoned me in the street. Handlee took me in out of ‘kindness.’ I don’t even know where to start.” She frowned. “What were their names?”
Doriel took a deep breath. “Names don’t always reveal what you wish to learn.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You knew my name and it appeared to reveal quite a bit to you.”
“The oath did that. Not your name.”
She was about to ask what kind of oath bound him when he said, “What are your earliest memories?”
Darkness, she almost replied. Instead, “Learning to pick pockets. Open doors. Scanning streets for softies. A little begging here and there.”
He frowned. “Not as bad as I’d expected.”
“But not nearly as much as you’d hoped?”
“No. How much do you know about the Great Families of the Northlands?”
She shrugged, a light lift of her shoulders that made her happy. It showed improvement. “They fought. They killed each other off. Everyone wants a piece of what’s left. That’s what the merchants say.” She laughed as she realized the import of his question. “You aren’t saying I’m one of them, are you?”
“What were their names? Do you know?”
She sighed in frustration. There’d been a few high-born people in the war, but as for the names of the Great Families, she couldn’t say, at first. It didn’t seem to make much difference in the way the merchants talked about them. “No. ‘Fraid not.”
Doriel looked out at the desert briefly, then back to her. “At the time of the war, two great houses ruled in the mountains to the north, headed by two powerful kings. One, a very kind and good man, was named Rikard Albraic. The other, far less so, was named Magnus Corellion. Both had well-trained armies, and both were well-trained in magic, Albraic in the Song, and Corellion in what is left when the Song is abandoned.”
Maple moved to her side and propped her head on one elbow, but stayed quiet, listening closely.
“They warred continually after their ascension to their respective thrones,” Doriel said. “So many men died in their battles that Corellion became convinced there was a movement forming against him outside the castle walls and even Albraic saw his people would soon perish if they didn’t give up the fight. Albraic abhorred violence, and Corellion, who had discovered a way to crush any internal dissension, eventually became bored with it, so a truce was agreed upon. Corellion would marry Albraic’s sister and Albraic would marry Corellion’s sister. Albraic hoped having family there would at least slow Corellion’s madness, while Corellion hoped his sister would weaken Albraic and allow him to swallow up the Albraic lands with greater speed than a war might bring. Corellion was also pleased that he now had what some might have called a ‘bargaining chip’ in future disputes.”
“A hostage?” Maple didn’t like the way this story was going.
“Of sorts. Plaything is another term I might have used. Corellion’s sister, Violet, was changed by Albraic. She fell in love and that love caused her to view her world with a truthfulness she never would have gained had she stayed. She renounced her evil ways and together they began to raise the child born to them to follow the ways of the High God.”
“And Albraic’s sister?”
Doriel’s jaw clenched. “His sister did not have the same good fortune. Although she never became evil, Magnus Corellion eventually broke her spirit.” Doriel paused, as if in pain. “They had one child only. And he hated her as much as he felt he needed her to secure his future kingdom.”
Maple remembered the feel of the sword in her hand and the darkness and hoped that, for once, there would turn out to be a little light in her past. She doubted it, given how the story was going, but still, she hoped.
“He tried to break her, as he had her mother. Unlike her mother, she escaped into the woods where members of his army found her.”
“Hooray for the girl,” Maple said.
“The story here changes according to who tells it. Some say she escaped more than once and that each time her father was livid. The same accounts say that he tried many ways of keeping her locked inside the castle. Still, nothing stopped her. She ran to the woods and was watched over by Corellion’s own army. Eventually, he gave up. She was allowed free reign among his soldiers and a guardian was appointed for her among them.”
“And what do others say?”
She held his gaze, and he said, “Only once. She escaped once, and a deal was struck between those in his army and Corellion.”
“Why did she escape?”
“No, why did he make any deals with his army, if he was as powerful as you say?”
“Everyone has their weakness. And the army found his.”
He smiled, some of the tension briefly leaving his face. “But in his frustration, he saw no reason to keep the truce he had made with Albraic. On the basis of rumors and hearsay, he connected the movement he thought he’d detected among his people to his own wife. Albraic protested, there was a meeting between the two that accomplished nothing, and the two houses met in a final battle. Many men were lost on both sides. Corellion breached the outer walls of Albraic’s fortress, he slaughtered his sister and stole away Albraic’s daughter.”
Maple rolled her eyes.
“You don’t believe me?” Doriel asked.
“No, I don’t. There’s no way I’m a dead princess.”
“Of course not.”
“And I’m not some princess you thought was dead but turns out to be alive.”
Doriel said nothing. And the longer he said nothing, the more uncomfortable she became.
“What then,” he finally said, “do you think is my reason for saying what I’ve said?”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” she said before she made the conversation any more uncomfortable, “it’s just that I’ve heard this story before in the marketplace. Except in that story, the princess trades places with a girl whose head ends up on a spear in front of the castle wall. Poor girl dies, princess lives.”
Doriel almost looked amused. “And what became of her?”
“Some say she’s the current Dark Mistress that plagues the Northlands. Some say she joined the elves and will never be heard of again.” This made Doriel’s eyebrows rise. “And some say it doesn’t matter in the end because stories exaggerate. The two kings killed each other off as kings do. Neither family remains. The end.”
Doriel’s attention fixed briefly on the horizon.
“Something I should know about?” Maple didn’t like how often he glanced at the horizon.
“Albraic committed suicide when he saw his family’s bodies stuck on poles like vermin.” Each word was spoken with a bitterness, a fury that surprised her. Doriel kept looking at the horizon. “Corellion died at the hands of his officers, his paranoia justified for once. So, no, they didn’t kill each other as kings do. And you remain, which means at least one of the houses is still alive.”
But which one? Maple though through what he’d said, his fury he kept trying to hide. “So, you served Corellion.”
It took some effort for him to reply. “Yes.”
“I knew it,” she whispered bitterly.
If Doriel had heard it, he ignored her. “As to what happened afterward…It is said that Albraic’s men had stormed Corellion’s castle and killed Corellion’s wife. We thought we’d found his daughter’s body among the dead inside the Keep. With no family to defend, Corellion’s army went their separate ways.” He shrugged. “Some of the rebels asked to join Albraic’s army, but Albraic himself was dead and his kingdom already shattered.”
“What really happened?”
Doriel shook his head. “We don’t know. There were some of Albraic’s men who were bent on destroying what they could of the Keep after they found out Albraic had killed himself in his grief. It’s possible.”
But there was another possibility he wasn’t saying. And he kept looking at the horizon. “Very comforting,” Maple said, feeling more than a little disappointed. “Where where you in all this?”
“Serving your house.”
“As best I could.”
She groaned, exasperated. “No. What did you do for my family? Were you a hired hand? A busboy?” She noticed Callio had began to snicker. “A soldier?”
“Enough. You’ve spent enough time talking and not enough time resting. The herbs can only do so much.”
“How can I trust your devotion when you won’t tell me what you did for my father?”
The look he gave her then made her feel ashamed for questioning his loyalty. “That time is done. All that matters is now. My oath still stands, whether you like it or not.” This was said, to her great relief, with some humor. And she found herself smiling, in spite of the awful events he’d related.
“So, what does this have to do with all your glances at the horizon?”
Doriel hesitated and looked out at the world around them, now lit by the risen sun. “After Corellion died, those who could tried to take over his lands and claim them as their own. No one has yet succeeded, though a few have drawn a line around it on their own maps as if they have started building there.”
“I don’t want a kingdom,” Maple said, not caring if she was interrupting or not. “I don’t care how many riches I can get from it. I’m not built for it.”
“If that is your wish, I’ll abide by it. However, as I said, the Corellions had enemies and those who wanted much from them. The magic was ancient and has raised many questions, especially regarding your father’s death. I beg permission, before you live your life as you want, to travel to those who can tell me more information.”
“Who do you want to see?”
“One of the men who killed your father.”
They traveled slowly across the desert, stopping when the sun was too high in the sky to permit travel and as soon as they found another rocky outcropping that provided shade. “I don’t remember there being so many rocks,” Maple commented as they settled in.
“That’s because there aren’t many near Refuge,” Doriel said. “There are more the further north we go.”
That gave her new images of the place they were headed toward, a land with many, many trees and rivers and mountains. She wanted to ask all about it, but was afraid it would make her sound far too excited to go there. Something might go wrong, and she didn’t want it to go wrong. Not this time.
They rested and listened to Callio’s stories of deals that had gone wrong, or gambling he’d once indulged in, and how that had gone wrong as well. Always with a laugh, he told these stories. She couldn’t tell if they amused Doriel or not. And her instinct told her Callio’s laughter was too loud, too frequent. Something was wrong. And she thought it might have something to do with the way Doriel kept sneaking glances at the horizon.
Something, someone, was following them. Someone was watching. That knowledge lurked behind the meal they shared, the cleaning-up afterward. It lingered in the brief conversation she’d had with them before settling in to sleep. She looked out at the horizon to the north, imagined towering rocks with ice on them, enormous trees taller than any building found in Refuge, and snow. She’d always wanted to see snow.
Those thoughts turned her back to the horizon. With a glance at Doriel, she followed the direction of his gaze to the south, where far off, she thought she could see a light.
It was faint, but it hadn’t been there yesterday. It flickered like a distant star, and was just as weak. But it was there.
She tried to set herself up so that she was facing the light as she drifted off to sleep. Except she couldn’t sleep. Darkness enveloped the camp and she still couldn’t manage, listening to the crackling fire, feeling every bit of the wagon’s hard lines and corners, even through the makeshift mattress.
Looking to the side, she noticed that Doriel was gone.
So much for being her protector. Then she remembered when she’d thought he was gone before and looked more closely around. The last thing she needed to do now was underestimate him.
Slipping out of the wagon, she looked and found him asleep, leaning against a rock. She watched him for several moments, watching the rise and fall of his breath. It seemed normal, but maybe she was wrong. He wasn’t moving otherwise. She stood and looked out at the light on the horizon, trying to figure out whether she should go closer. If she were careful, she might learn something valuable.
No, she decided. She should just go further north. She wasn’t meant to be a ruler over anyone, even if it was just one elf. Plus, it was dark, the best time to travel. And she couldn’t sleep. Going back to the wagon, she took only one item, a dagger she’d seen Callio displace when he’d put away some items earlier from their meal.
Nothing else, not even water, went with her from the wagon. The thought of stealing from them made her uncomfortable now.
The trail wasn’t difficult to find. She set out at a quick pace, trying to cover as much ground as possible before sunrise.
Before long, she realized she hadn’t healed as much as she’d thought. The campsite was already well out of sight when she finally sat down, tired and feeling a little sick. “Shouldn’t have pushed it,” she told herself, and forced herself to stand. Looking for the pointstar, she began walking again, trying to ignore the growing stitch in her side and the way the trail was beginning to weave in front of her.
And then, to her great surprise, she saw a light far off in the distance. Just like the light that had been south.
A chill came over her and she froze. An irrational, visceral panic made her throat tighten, her flesh go cold, and her legs cease working. She stumbled backward, sure the light was coming closer. Racing closer. And whatever was in the light was glad she was afraid.
Turning around, she raced back to the camp, her weak legs moving faster than they ever had in life. Coming for her. The light was coming for her. Pain. Darkness. Shadows. Her breath come in ragged gasps and she stumbled. Hard ground scraped her knees and hands. She heard a sword being drawn. Whipping around, she looked up and saw Doriel, glaring in the direction she’d just come from, sword raised.
“Where were you?” she demanded.
He held up a hand for silence. For several moments, they said nothing. She waited, alert to every sound, aware of how unfair she’d just been and feeling more and more grateful he’d been willing to protect her even after she’d put herself in danger like that. Not just her, she realized, looking at his drawn sword. Whatever had come for her would have had to go through him first.
The import of that made her feel even more sick.
Finally, Doriel nodded toward the camp and they began walking back, Doriel following her.
She looked to the south. The light was no longer there.
It felt as if they’d walked forever by the time they returned. The stitch in her side made it difficult to walk, but she had decided that unless they were being actively chased, she wasn’t going to have him hampered by her own idiocy. Better to leave him free to defend himself. Maybe it was the wrong choice, but putting him in danger like that didn’t set well with her. After all, even if he were following her because of an oath, that didn’t give her the right to make stupid decisions that caused him to pay far more than he should.
Better to find a way to break his oath and tell him to leave.
She collapsed in front of the wagon, causing the drameds to stir. “Thirsty?” She looked up to see a waterskin in front of her.
“Thank you,” she said, and took it, though she was barely able to drink from it. No sense making his life even harder by dying on him.
Though, a morbid part of her couldn’t help thinking, that would definitely break the oath.
She handed it back and he took it, placed it in the wagon, and went back to his post, sitting where she had last seen him. “Do you sleep?” she asked.
“Am I capable of it? Yes. Why?” And the look he gave her made her wonder if he was going to ask if it was so she would know when to run off again.
“Have you slept at all since you found me?”
“Casting protective spells requires staying awake. I can rest when we get further north.”
He looked up at her. She stood and walked over to him, standing above him. “That light is what’s following us, isn’t it?”
“What is it?”
“If I knew, I would tell you. All I know at the moment is that it’s ancient magic.”
“Enough that you’ve been putting off sleep even though that makes it more likely you’ll be beaten in a fight?”
The answer was as direct as her own questions and brought back some of the terror she had while running. “And you have no idea what it is?”
“All I’ve told you.”
“You have to sleep.”
“When we get further north.”
She sat down so that he was looking down at her now. “I don’t like this. I don’t like you taking orders from me when you’re a much better fighter. I don’t like being followed around as if I wasn’t able to dress myself. I. Don’t. Like. This. And I especially don’t like knowing that you’re giving up sleep so that you can protect me from whatever it is out there.”
He looked at her closely, no expression on his face. “If you’re concerned about my ability to protect you, I’ve gone with less sleep and done well in a battle. No one lost their lives when I did so.”
That wasn’t what bothered her, but she only frowned and stood. “After we get to Oasis where your friend lives, the one who can tell us more about my father’s death, I want you to get some sleep.”
Doriel hesitated. “The spells—”
“Yes, I’m very aware of the spells and I appreciate them.” In a softer voice, one she hated, she said, “I really do. Thank you. But you shouldn’t be doing all this for me.”
“I serve you—”
“You shouldn’t!” Cursing herself for snapping at him, she looked over at Callio to see if she’d made his night miserable as well. He only turned a little. Good. “Once we talk to this friend, rest. Or I might do something stupid like I did tonight.”
He didn’t correct her, which told her everything she needed to know about her actions. “Are you concerned about me, mistress?”
She shrugged. “No one should die for me,” she finally said, unable to find any other words. “Promise me you’ll sleep.”
“Very well. After we get to Oasis, I’ll rest.”
“Good. Thank you.” She went back to her makeshift bed in the wagon. Climbing up with some difficulty, she looked to the south and saw the light once again.
Sleep didn’t come to her that night until after they’d begun to move north once more.