Caleb nodded, trying to pretend that he didn’t still feel as though he was going to be sick. If the Phoenix – whoever she was – knew enough to know that the company would be travelling this road, then… “What’s stopping her just attacking us now?”
Tam scowled. “Politics, probably. Her lord and master’s not at war with your king yet, and I doubt even she’d keep her head on her shoulders if she broke that particular peace.”
Well, that was… reassuring. Sort of. He scuffed the toes of his boots into the dark earth of the forest floor, trying to piece together everything he’d learned over the last few days into some semblance of an actual narrative. If he could just find the thread, then maybe – maybe he’d find a way of solving the whole problem. Maybe he’d find a way to defeat the Phoenix, and find the Heart, and save the Captain, and-
And maybe that was a stupid way to look at it. Stories were fine in their place, told round campfires and over mugs of beer, or whispered to colicky infants in their cribs, or sung by bards by the fire in the local tavern. But, as he was rapidly discovering, they were a lot less fun once you were actually in one.
He’d killed someone.
He’d killed a person who’d murdered other people, and who’d been in the pay of someone else who’d ordered entire families butchered.
But he’d still killed her. She’d been about his age, and she’d probably had friends, and family, and songs she liked, and a favourite food, and people she cared for, and now she was dead.
But- she’d killed people, who’d also had those things, and who were also now dead. And she’d not even had the excuse of killing in self-defence. And she’d been in the pay of the Phoenix. And the Phoenix, if Tam’s story had even a grain of truth in it, was evil.
So that made it alright. Didn’t it?
This was all turning out to be a whole lot more complicated than it’d sounded back when he’d first had the idea to go adventuring.
He blinked, refocusing on his surroundings to find Tam waving a hand experimentally in front of his face. “Gah!”
“That’s better. Thought I’d lost you for a moment there.” She scrambled to her feet, looking around. “Now I know Talan’s headed back to the camp already, and I heard the twins fighting, so that’s them accounted for. Rethan and Dana were moving that tree out the road last I checked, and Kitten’s providing moral support, which means Ariane’s the only one I’m missing right now.”
“And she’s back at the camp,” Caleb supplied, grateful for a problem he could actually solve relatively easily. “She’s copying the map – or, at least, she was when I left.”
“Map?” Tam’s eyebrows shot up. “When’d we get a map?”
“Just now?” It didn’t seem an entirely satisfactory explanation, so he continued: “She was doing a scrying spell, as far as I could tell. It created a sort of map out of blue embers, in the grass.”
He’d been assuming that was the normal way that spell was supposed to go – Tam’s reaction, on the other hand, suggested that’d been a somewhat misjudged assumption. She blinked at him, and then pulled a face that suggested she’d just bitten her tongue to avoid saying something. After a while, she managed “That’s… impressive.”
“I thought so. But I’m not a mage, so I don’t know what’s supposed to happen.”
“That, apparently. But Ari’s not been able to get a scrying spell to go off properly for as long as I’ve known her – she keeps trying, every time we’re after something, and it always fizzles or comes out wrong.” She frowned. “What was it a map of?”
And there was the problem. “Um. The Lands Beyond The Sky.”
“It’s true! Ask the twins!”
“Hey now, I’m not arguing against it being true – and they’d know, they’re the least subtle elves I’ve ever met. Half-elves, even. I’m swearing ’cause that’s just added an extra sheet to the bloody knot.” A grimace. “First the Phoenix, now the elves. This is just getting better and better.”
“Are the elves that bad?”
“They’re certainly not likely to be rolling out the bloody welcome mat for us any time soon. But no, you’re right. Phoenix worse, elves better.” She started towards the camp, continuing over her shoulder: “And speaking of the Phoenix, we’d best get back. You want to run grab Rethan and Dana? They’ll need to hear this.”
“They’re moving the tree, did you say?”
“Aye. They’ve got the horses with ’em, so they shouldn’t be too hard to miss.”
He nodded. “What do I tell them?”
“That the Phoenix paid off the bandits. No point in keeping it a big secret.”
“And they should come back to camp?”
“Aye. So we can discuss what in the name of anything we’re going to do about that.”
There was no sign of Rethan, Dana, or Kitten by the fallen tree, though the company’s horses were still tethered to the makeshift drag-rig that’d been lashed together.
There was, however, someone else.
As Caleb pushed through the branches and emerged, blinking, into the relative brightness of the road, a flicker of movement caught at the edge of his vision. He turned his head, fast, and just about made out a dark figure vanishing into the underbrush – roughly the size of an adult human, and moving through the tangled terrain with an ease that spoke of long practice or unnatural ability.
He made to head after it, more from instinct than any conscious thought, but a sharp tug on his sleeve brought him up short. He looked down, and met the worried gaze of a pair of wide golden eyes set in a small, serious brown face.
“Kitten?” He’d not seen where the girl had come from, but there were twigs and leaves caught in her hair, and smears of mud and something that looked horribly like blood splashed across the front of her clothes and over her bare arms. “What happened? Are you alright?”
She yanked at his sleeve again, pointing with her other hand towards the end of the fallen tree. It had come completely away from the ground, leaving it with intact roots that mirrored the branches at the other end of the trunk, and he suddenly realised where she’d been hiding.
Which begged two questions. What had she been hiding from and, more importantly, where were the others?
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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