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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Seven

 

"I hope you know what you're doing." Was the last thing Dharva said to Theo before he left her hiding in the woods beyond the cliffs upon which Tiana's little community perched. He fervently held similar wishes, having absolutely no desire to be caught sneaking about where he did not belong in that particular lady's demesnes. One did not want to even dwell on the results of such a catastrophe.

They had spent all of the day, following their acquisition of the horse, trailing the sea northward. Perhaps ten leagues of ragged coastline fringed in thick forest was left behind by late afternoon, and as the sun drifted towards the horizon to let the moon take her turn, the forest dwindled and turned rapidly into grassy plains. The cliffs grew steeper, towering some hundred feet above the dark sea below and in the distance the lights of a small town could just be seen.

A dozen small thatch houses and a scattered handful of squat stone buildings crouched on either side of the dirt road that led to the walled castle dominating the landscape. A hulking, thick walled creation, it sat with brooding weight at the edge of sheer, white cliffs. Too much erosion of those selfsame cliffs and the fortress might find itself a scattered addition of gray stone and lumber among the rocks at the cliff foot.

The expanse of flat, treeless lands about the fortress served the double purpose of pasture land for a fair number of horses and sheep as well as a strategical advantage to defenders, since no enemy could take cover among the grasses and slip unnoticed past the watchful eyes of lookouts. There had to be lookouts. The lady would not go the trouble to have men in Vahnatu chasing down nosy folk who asked too many questions about her business and not have guards scanning the lands about her own home.

It was on that assumption that Theo decided not to sneak in at all, but to ride boldly forth down the pitted, weed tangled road and hope whoever happened to be looking did not claim close association with every one of Tiana's men.

It was a very small community outside the lumbering walls of the fortress. He would have liked to bypass it entirely, but to do so would have seemed odd. So he merely wrapped the cloak around himself, as any man would in the chill of early night, and sedately rode through town. Smoke drifted from a dozen chimneys and the smell of dinner wafted on the air. For the most part the occupants of the houses were inside, but here and there a woman emptied a pan of dishwater or potato skins, or a man sat drawing on a pipe, partaking of the evening air. Theo ignored the women and nodded at the men, who watched him pass with mild curiosity, but no more.

By the time he had reached the tall, wooden gates at the end of the road, he was rather pleased with his progress. Duplicity was not a game he often played, but he found success at it thrilling. His exhilaration was cut short when he discovered the gates were closed and he sat for a moment, thinking what course of action he might take when a head appeared over the top of the wall and called down to him.

"Ho there. What business do you have within?"

Ah, caught in the charade now with no safe, quiet way to turn around and back out. He looked up, knowing that the darkness covered his features.

"I've come from the city with news about folk asking after the Lady."

"And it couldn't wait till morning?"

"Fine. I've no problem waiting. You can explain to her why it was late coming though."

There was a pause. Then the head withdrew. A few moments later one of the massive gates swung outward and a man in much the same armor as Theo beckoned him inside. Theo dismounted, leading his horse into the courtyard, looking over his shoulder as the gate was pulled closed behind him and a heavy bar slid into place to secure it. It was a matter of relying on his wits and powers of observation now. He let his nose direct him towards the stable, and led the horse that way as if he had been there many times.

The gate guard shuffled back up the narrow wooden stair that led to the post atop the wall, pausing only to call down. "Darak's off on some errand for the Lady, so report to Sol."

"Where's he at this time of evening?" Theo wanted to know.

"Probably the main hall. Maybe you can even get yourself a spot of dinner when you find him."

Theo nodded his thanks, grateful for the information on just what place he needed to avoid. Leaving the horse at the stables, tethered near a long stone trough, he began to casually survey the main building looking for a discreet side entrance. He found one at the end of the long line of stalls, a small door that must have been a servants entrance. At this hour there were no stableboys or servants loitering about the yard and he slipped through the door unnoticed.

He found himself in a low roofed passage so narrow his shoulders almost touched the walls to either side. There were doors along the hall, some closed, others open enough for him to see these rooms were mostly used for storage. What he was looking for would not be here. Tiana valued the old man enough to have him under lock and key in some more secure section of the castle. Theo figured he was either secured in the upper rooms, probably near the lady's own, or - dreadful thought - secreted away in the fortress's underparts. If the barroom tales he had heard most of his life were any indication, all castles had at least one level of dank dungeons to their credit.

It was merely a matter of methodically searching out Dharva's master without being discovered as a spy in the midst of the Lady's nest. He reached a more spacious stone corridor that branched off to the left and right. He hesitated for a moment, wondering which route to choose, figuring finally that one way was as good as the other and heading off into the depths of the fortress.

* * * *

 

Dharva leaned against a thick bowled maple, chewing inelegantly at a dirty, stubby nail. She wished she had a bow, but there had been none for sale in the Vahnatu market. With a bow she would have felt for secure in her ability to fend off distant enemies. She could have climbed a tree and scanned the forest for hostile approach and picked them off one by one. She was better with a bow than she ever had been with a knife. She didn't know why she'd spent good money on the dirks, since she had never taken much time to practice throwing them. Probably because Theo had agitated her so much.

He was agitating her now, going off and leaving her sitting in the woods as if she were some helpless little maid who couldn't hold her own in a fight. Why did people always treat her like that? First Anson, and now this arrogant sea captain who really had no stake in this mess to begin with. If Anson had let her stay with him, he'd probably be here now and who knew what trouble Theo would find.

She wondered what had happened during Tiana's voyage over, that had sparked the sorceress to wreck Theo's ship? She did not recall anyone ever mentioning that. Admittedly she had been a little too upset over her own problems to ask.

She took a bored huff of breath and peered through the little opening in the branches above her to see where the moon was. It had moved considerably across the night sky. More than a hour had passed since Theo had ridden off. How long did it take to find an old man? There could only be so many places he could be.

A squirrel jumped onto a branch above her had, shaking free a small shower of water. Dharva ducked her head and scowled at the wetness, eyeing the malicious squirrel who sat chattering above her with a self satisfied expression on its sharp little face. She thought about calling one of her fire spirits to chase the thing away. The spirits were much more willing to perform little spiteful tasks than the more complicated spells most magic workers called upon them for. She squashed the desire to vent her impatience on the forest creature, figuring she would be better of saving her energy for later when she might have more need of it.

Tired of her vantage she moved closer to the edge of the wood, staring out over vast dark fields to the structures beyond. There were few lights at all now, most people having retired to bed. The fortress itself had only a few lights burning in its windows. What was Theo doing?

She ground her teeth and made a decision. This was her mission and she could not stand idly by while someone else accomplished it. She pulled her dark cloak about her, covering her bright curls and left her woody cover. It was so dark no one would notice her as she crossed the pasture land. Sheep watched her as she passed their flock, but they were silent witnesses to her progress, returning posthaste to their grazing once she'd moved by. The little town, she avoided altogether, creeping a good distance around it to reach the fortress wall.

The wall itself was stone and twice the height of a tall man. There was no climbing that barrier. She walked all the way around to the sea side edge where it ended abruptly at the sheer drop of cliffs. She took one quick look over that edge and moved hastily backwards, stomach churning uneasily. No person in their sane mind would risk that straight drop. It was so far down the sounds of the sea crashing against the rocks at the bottom was only a distant rumble.

She leaned against the wall, several feet back from the edge and looked miserably out to sea. It was a mammoth pit of black ink only faintly illuminated where the lighter horizon met the water's edge. She thought for a moment she saw a flare of light in the midst of that darkness, but it was gone all to quickly to pin point. Perhaps a ship plied those waters, sailing up the coast to some smaller port north of Vahnatu.

The sea was no help to her, so she followed the wall back, eventually approaching the front on the fortress and the only gate she had so far found. Disheartened, she crouched in the lee of the wall, searching her lore of spells for some single one that might be of use to her. She could burn the gates down but that would distract somewhat from her desire to remain unknown and fire spirits alone were not much good at moving physical objects such as gate bars.

Something scuffed above her head and she experienced a moment's panic when she realized that the gate guard took his leisure directly above her hiding place. She shrank against the cold stone, stilling her breath until she could barely hear it.

A guard at the gate! There was no way she might force her way through them now. He would see them open, see her and raise the alarm. The only way those gates would open without an alarm was if he did it himself. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. What might prompt the man to open the outer gates? Something that would distract his attention and draw him outside of the wall's protection.

Perhaps there was something her magic could accomplish. She stared into the darkness across the road leading to the gate. The grass was kept low, and it was damp from the recent rain, but those were hardly deterrents to a determined witch with fire spirits at her command.

She concentrated, directing her thoughts to the limbo between this world and the one the spirits inhabited, where those attuned her call might hear her and come. It took a few minutes for the first few to pop into existence around her, being newly bonded spirits they were not particularly trained to promptness. They swarmed around her, some four of five of them, and it took a great deal of meditation for her to get across the task she wished them to accomplish.

Finally one got the idea and whipped across the road. The others followed its lead and together the lot of them dove into the grass creating a sudden blaze of fire. Not too much! She sent all her will into the caution, not wanting a blaze that would wake the town, just enough to get the gate guard off the wall and running outside it to douse the flames.

It didn't take long. She heard a startled yell from above, then the thumping of feet as the man ran along the wooden scaffolding and down the stairs. A few minutes later and the gates creaked. A man hurried through, carrying a bucket of water, most of which sloshed out in his haste before he reached the small fire.

Dharva waited until he was almost to her spirit manufactured blaze before jumping up and slipping past the open gates. She kept to the wall once inside, not wanting to be caught sprinting across the open courtyard. She traveled a good distance away from the front gate in the shadows before she felt safe enough to creep across the yard to the walls of the fortress.

Since everything was quiet, aside from her fire, she assumed that Theo was still inside and undiscovered. All she need do now was find him and Master Pyphin. She gave very little thought to what she might do once those two tasks were completed.

* * * *

A fair number of folk worked and lived within the walls of Tiana's keep. Theo must have passed a dozen servants going about whatever duties they had that kept them afoot at the late hour. There were fewer guards wondering the halls, but the occasional one strolled past, so Theo did not feel totally out of place. No one paid him much heed. He'd found the main dining hall and veered sharply from that direction having no desire to accidentally meet up with Sol. He had discovered stairs leading upward and expanded his search to the higher levels of the fortress. There were mostly private chambers, libraries, parlors, or merely rooms bare of any adornment whatsoever. One suspected it was difficult finding a purpose to occupy so many rooms.

The next level up was warmer. Carpet covered the floors of the halls, and small elegant tables with elaborate statuary or flower arrangements stood against the walls. Paintings, tapestries or mirrors dotted the walls, giving the whole of this floor a richer feel. There were fewer doors along the short main hall, only four and a large set of double doors at the end. Halfway down the corridor another hall bisected it. Theo padded across the thick carpet, boots barely making a sound it was so plush a weave.

He had almost reached the intersecting hall when the sound of a door opening preceded voices coming from the right side of the hidden hall. For one second he considered playing the same bluff that had worked so well with the servants by merely pretending he had business here, then the familiarity of one of the voices crashed down on him.

Tiana. The lady herself was about to walk right on top of him. He took a breath to qualm panic and grabbed at the handle of the closest door. It turned. He pushed it open and slipped inside, barely shutting the door when Tiana and a primly dressed elderly man turned down the hall and passed him by. She was in the process of chewing the man out. Theo caught the tail end of something concerning the state of her affairs in Vahnatu going to rot while she was away. The man was sallow faced and miserable from what Theo could see from the crack in the door. He had Theo's sympathy for being on the receiving end of the lady's displeasure.

They passed, soft footfalls fading down the hall towards the stairs. Theo took a breath and another, until he thought they were well on their way, then chanced to move, glancing around him at the darkened features of well-furbished bedroom. For a moment he stood with his back pressed against the door, waiting for the rapid beating of his heart to slow. It was chilling, how close he had come to discovery.

He cracked the door, carefully scanning the hall before leaving his shelter. Quickly, he moved down the hall to the crossing corridor. Nothing but more closed doors. Four to the right. Four to the left. No guards. No indication that the lady of the keep held a prisoner behind any of those doors. With a heartfelt sigh of lament over how difficult this project was becoming, he began to check rooms.

 

Dharva entered the fortress through the kitchens. The doors, even late at night were open wide to vent the heat from the great hearths that were always burning. The smells of bread and simmering stew filled the large stone chamber. There was a single woman on duty, and she sat on a bench by the largest of the two hearths, dozing. Dharva slipped silently past and out into the narrow confines of a servant's passage. She stood undecided for a moment, desperately searching for some premonition that would urge her in the right direction. To the left, she figured finally, since it was the darker way and it seemed more appropriate that the villain be holding her master in the shadows than the light.

The walls were close and of rough stone, the floor devoid of any covering save dirt, it was clearly a hall meant for no feet but those of servants. Such halls might go everywhere in the fortress since the servants would be expected to maintain the upkeep of the entire building, creating a network of passages that was more extensive than the grander halls that the privileged traveled. There was a stairwell at the far end of the hall that led downward, only a torch at the bottom of the steps lighting the way. The stairs probably led to the storage cellars, which would be full of rats and spiders in addition to whatever foodstuffs needed the cool of below ground storage. More than likely a waste of her time, but the intuition that had drawn her in this direction in the first place urged her down those steep stone steps.

Hands on the sides of the walls, she descended, feeling carefully for stairs her eyes could barely discern. Perhaps thirty steps down and the floor leveled off. A guttering torch sat in a bracket in the wall. To the right was an open area of floor upon which were stacked barrels, crates and burlap sacks of meal or flour. Behind that was a wall high shelf crammed with wine bottles. To the left ran a stone carved passage drenched in darkness. There was no light at the end of that tunnel, so she took the torch from the wall, hoping no one would miss its presence and ventured that way.

The air was moist, and the walls wet to the touch. She was at least twenty or more feet underground by now, and it was possible some underground source of water tunneled through the cliffs this fortress sat upon, invading its substructure. At the end of the tunnel there was an old wooden door. It was locked. She put her weight fruitlessly against its bulk but it would not budge. There was a metal grate just above easy eye level and she stood on her toes to peer through to the other side. Another hall, but this one dimly lit by oil lanterns spaced about the wall. There were doors along both sides. Sturdy wooden doors with rusted iron hinges and bolts on the outside. Why bolt a door from the outside unless you were trying to keep something in. Her breathing turned rapid in excitement.

He was down here. She knew master Pyphin was here. It was merely a matter of getting through this damned door to find him. The door itself was thick, but the frame was of an older nature and rotting from all the moisture.

She concentrated, creating a focused, controlled spell for her spirits to follow. She wanted no mishaps within the heart of her enemies fortress. Nothing that would alert a more accomplished witch that another was practicing magic within her own domain. A single spirit appeared and bored forthwith into the wood level with the door's handle. A small, glowing center of heat turned the wood red. Curling, charred embers of wood sifted to the stone floor. It was so hot a heat that when Dharva went to touch the door's handle her fingers were singed. She drew them back hastily and used the edge of her cloak to shield her flesh from the warmth. With a sharp effort she yanked the door towards her and the bolt broke through the charred door frame that held it.

She felt an elation that she had not felt since the spirits had first come at her sacrifice. This small, controlled feat had been harder than any of the other tricks she had performed. It was by far easier to call the spirits, give them a vague idea of what one wanted and let them loose to wreck havoc than it was to force them to the moderation of a specific task.

The corridor ran straight with one intersecting passage and at the far end were stairs leading upward. There were six doors along the main passage and she ran to the first, peering through the grate to observe a small, unlit square chamber. She held the torch up near the grate but the fickle light barely penetrated the shadows. With voice barely pitched above a whisper she queried. "Master Pyphin?"

No response. She moved to the cell across the way and repeated the process. At the fourth cell, when she held the torch up and the small bit of light touched the darkness something shuffled within the confines of the room.

"Hello?" she whispered afraid that it was not even a man, but a rat scurrying from the light. "Master Pyphin, is that you?"

A feeble groan drifted out of the darkness at the back of the small cell. Dharva caught her breath, hand moving to the rusty bolt securing the door. The sound of footsteps scuffed on the steps at the end of the hall. She muttered a curse and drew back, darting into the intersecting hall and dropping the torch to the floor to extinguish it. She crouched down against the wall to present a shape small enough to escape notice and pulled her hood up to cover her bright hair.

She heard the movement of a man and dared not peek around the corner to see what he was about. Quietly she drew her knife from its sheath, holding it in both hands between her knees to keep her fingers from shaking. So close. She could not afford to be discovered now.

The man moved down the corridor, seeming to pass her without notice, until he hesitated, looking towards the end of the hall where the door that should have been locked stood ajar and the smell of burning wood overpowered even the strong mildewed odor that permeated the air down here. He would raise the alarm. She had to stop that before it happened. She leapt up at his back, raising the knife so she might plunge it down with more force. The guard whirled before she was quite upon him, throwing out an arm to defend himself against her naked blade, using the thick material of his cloak to shield his hand as he knocked the blade aside. His other hand snaked out to grasp her throat, bearing her backwards and hard against the wall. The breath left her in a great expulsion of air and she was left gasping helplessly, her knife arm entangled in his cloak her hood sliding off her head to reveal her shorn golden hair.

The pressure on her throat let up of a sudden as the hand moved to grasp her collar. He jerked her forward, giving her one sound shake. It took her eyes a moment to catch up with her disoriented brain and realize that the indignant face glaring down at her was a familiar one.

"What are you doing here?" An equally familiar voice hissed.

She blinked up at Theo in confusion before indignity at his rough treatment of her set in and she jerked her self free of his grasp. She shook the knife at him accusingly and complained. "You were taking too long. How was I to know that you hadn't been captured too?"

"I told you to trust me." he muttered, looking over one shoulder at the stairs he had descended. "How did you get down here?"

She sniffed, and jerked her head towards the door at the other end of the hall. "I am a witch after all." she informed him haughtily, then guilt overwhelmed her as she realized she was putting more energy into standing in this dank hallway sparring with Theo than freeing her poor master. She dashed to the cell, pulling at the bolt.

"He's in here, I think." she declared, fighting with the stubborn bolt. Theo pushed her out of the way and worked the bolt open himself.

"Go get a lantern." he instructed her before he pulled the door open. She had no arguments with that and fetched the light, hovering over his shoulder as he stepped into the dim little cube. It smelled badly of urine and defecation, mold and the tang of sweat. There was a bunk built into the wall at the back of the cell, and upon this a figure lay under a blanket. It was a horrid vile place and Dharva choked back nausea at the thought of Master Pyphin living within it. She pushed around Theo and hurried to the bunk, kneeling at its side and gently pulling back the blanket to reveal the man that lay beneath.

"Spirits." she murmured when the light revealed the thin, ashen face of the old man. There were bruises on his papery flesh and dried blood under his nose and at the side of his lips. His lids twitched convulsively over his eyes as if his sleep were plagued with foul night scares. She put a hand gently to his shoulder and tried to shake him awake.

She sensed Theo bending over her, heard his whispered. "Collin said she had him drugged. Maybe he still is."

"Yes. The drugs would keep him from focusing and calling his magic. We can carry him if need be, but I'd rather he was lucid enough to realize what's happening."

"Yeah." Theo agreed, looking about the cell. He spotted a pitcher of water by the door and brought it over to the bunk. Dharva realized what he was about and nodded, dipping her fingers into the water and gently splashing her master's face with the liquid. His mouth moved a little and a slight groan escaped him. He tried to turn over to avoid the disturbance.

Dharva sighed in disappointment, preparing to dip her hand once more, but Theo took the more direct approach and tossed the entire contents of the pitcher onto the old man's head. Dharva glared, fighting back the urge to swing back and hit him for the crude treatment, but Pyphin's sputtering curse of surprise belayed her irritation at Theo. Watery, dark eyes blinked up at her in bafflement while one thin hand grasped at her sleeve weakly.

"Master Pyphin." she cried, bending down to wrap her arms around the old man's wet shoulders. "I was so worried."

"Dharva?" his voice was a whispery imitation of his normal assured tones. "Dharva, where is this? Has the fire burned out?"

"No. No. We're not at home. She destroyed home. Don't you remember?"

He merely stared owlishly at her, then beyond her at Theo who was shifting impatiently. "Who's this, girl? Have you brought a man home?"

She choked a laugh back, putting an arm under Pyphin's shoulders to lift him up. He coughed for a bit after that, the whole of his body shaking. He was cold and looked sick and now wet to boot. She was going to hit Theo, she promised herself, once they were safely away from this. She unhooked her cloak and put it around her master's shoulders, fastening it at his neck.

"Help me." she said to Theo, and between the two of them they got Pyphin on his feet.

"Your way or mine?" she asked when they stood in the hall outside the cell. Theo hesitated, biting his lip uncertainly.

"Where does your way lead?"

"To the servant's passages and the kitchen."

"Your way then."

They passed the door she'd magiced open and closed it behind them so no casual observer would take note of the invasion. With her torch gutted she had no choice but to call forth a small sphere of light to guide their steps. Pyphin's eyes lit up at the sight.

"You've got your spirits, girl." he exclaimed.

"Yes, master." she murmured. It had been her greatest hope to share this moment with him in the safe comfort of his cottage, not in the dank, dangerous halls of an enemy's fortress.

They climbed the steps out of the storage cellar, with Theo taking Pyphin's weight and Dharva following behind, keeper of the light. When the top was reached he handed her master over to her and advised them to stay put while he made certain no one was in the hall outside.

He had no sooner placed his feet on the floor of the servant's passage when an accusing voice called out to him.

"Hey! You! What were you doing down there?"

Dharva pulled back into the shadow, drawing Pyphin down a step with her. Theo did not even glance over his shoulder at her when he whispered. "I'll distract them. Just get him out." then he strode boldly towards the voice, leaving her with an old man that could barely stand and the dreadful reminisce of having heard very similar words on another shore from another man that was trying to keep her from trouble.

 

The cook was accusing Theo of raiding her wine cellar. She was red faced and indignant and not at all willing to take a bit of flattery in exchange for looking the other way. She seemed only partially inclined to accept his heartfelt apologies and he was beginning to think he'd have to stuff her in the pantry to shut her up, when the same gate guard that had let him into the fortress stomped into the kitchen from outside.

"Do you have a spot of stew for me, Addy?" he asked the cook. Then his eyes settled on Theo and narrowed.

"I thought I sent you to Sol? What're you doing loitering around the kitchen?"

"Stealing my good wine." The cook put hands on broad hips indignantly.

"No theft, certainly." Theo held up empty hands and smiled good naturedly. "Merely looking for a spot of drink to take the night's chill off. It was a long ride from the city." he looked to the guard for sympathy.

"It is getting a bit nippy out there." the man agreed grudgingly. "Some idiot even started a fire outside the gates. Probably one of Vake the Pikemaster's kids. Rotten little bastards. It's most likely too late to see Sol now, if you already haven't. Best wait till morning."

"No." the cook put in. "I just delivered a flagon of mulled wine and a loaf to him and the Lady in her study. She's had a word or two with Chancellor Leiben, I can tell you that."

"Humm. Best not to disturb him then." The guard said.

Theo was relieved at that decision. He sighed as if his life were full of such impediments. "Oh well, I'll see him in the morning, then."

The guard ducked his chin, looking behind Theo's back. "You may not need to." he muttered, just as a lumbering, over muscled presence filled the doorway to the kitchen carrying a flagon of wine.

"You incompetent twit. The lady asked for Perthian white wine and you send her Parmalian red."

The cook blanched, stuttering apologies, rushing forward to retrieve the flagon from Sol's huge hand. He almost let her have it, then his eyes happened to take account of the two men in the kitchens with her. His small eyes narrowed and his fingers tightened over the neck of the bottle. With a curse he hurled the thing at Theo.

Theo, with the distinct feeling of walls crumbling in on him, was in no wise of a mind to stand about and play target. He jumped to the side as the full flagon of wine shattered on the edge of the table behind where he'd been standing. The cook screeched. The gate guard fumbled for his sword, total incomprehension in his eyes as to what might have caused Sol's violent action. Sol charged into the room and Theo started for the door - -

- - and stopped, the wholly miserable thought occurring to him, that if the alarm were raised because of him and chase given, then Dharva and the old man would never be able to slip out of the fortress. He stood immobile at the threshold of the kitchen door with the cover of a dark night before him and could not believe he was doing it. Brutally heavy hands came down upon his shoulder, spinning him around to face the none too happy countenance of Tiana's number two body guard.

If Sol asked him right off what he was doing here, he didn't know what he might say. He needed a few precious minutes to think up a story. Sol was content enough to comply, by not bothering to ask and simply backhanding Theo so hard he slammed against the door jam and lost breath and vision for one split second. He braced his feet, holding up hands to stop further abuse, figuring there was little thinking to be done while his head was spinning from impact and pain.

"Wait a minute. Don't you even want to know why I'm here?"

Apparently Sol didn't, for he grabbed the cloth at Theo's collar and dragged him forward, lifting his other hand in preparation of another blow.

"I came to talk to Tiana." he blurted out the one thing that might hold Sol's destructive tendencies and the last thing, the very last thing, Theo actually wanted to do.

Sol hesitated, glancing over his shoulder at the wide eyed cook and gate guard, then back to Theo. There was a great deal of suspicion in his small eyes, but not much intelligence to back it up. One could see the change in his expression as some decision was reached. He transferred his hold from Theo's collar to his arm and with a rumble in his chest much like the growling of a large dog, he stalked from the kitchen, dragging Theo behind him.

It was turning out to be a very bad day after all.

 

The lady was expecting her bodyguard to return with a flagon of white wine, not a prisoner in tow. One could be almost entirely positive of this assumption from the relaxed pose in which she was found, in a comfortable chair before a fire, her feet propped on a small stool and a lap blanket warming her legs. She was not prepared to see Theo dragged in behind Sol, that was apparent from the absolute shock on her face.

She sat for a moment, her mouth open in surprise while Sol stopped Theo in the middle of the chamber, the both of them standing upon the whole hide of some unfortunate Danarian animal.

"Where ever did you find him?" she asked, when she'd regained composure.

"In the kitchens." Sol stated the bare facts, giving Theo a little shake for emphasis. Theo's arm was going numb from the grip.

"Really?" she threaded her fingers under her chin, glittering eyes transferring to Theo. "Whatever were you doing there?"

"Changing my mind." Theo said in as calm a tone as he could manage.

Tiana arched a brow. "pray tell? And what was on your mind, Captain, that needed changing?"

"Well, seeing you."

That statement held her interest for a moment. She observed him quietly for the span of several breaths, her face a picture of composure. Then she asked. "How did you get into this keep?"

He shrugged, not particularly wanting to get into that. He needed to draw her attention elsewhere. "Does it matter? I decided to come here, then I changed my mind. Call me a fool if you want."

"I'll keep that in consideration. Why did you come?"

He looked away, at the tapestry hung walls, the flickering fire, the tall, velvet curtained windows that blocked out the night, then back at Tiana. "I guess I couldn't stop thinking about you."

She opened her mouth, then shut it. "You came here," she finally said. "Because you were thinking of me?"

He cast her a wry grin. "Can you blame me? You were right, I was afraid of your magic. It's not a thing a man likes to admit. It made me say stupid things. Things I wish I could take back."

"You can't." she said flatly with unequivocal finality, but there was interest in her eyes. She was perfectly willing to hear his atonement. She was perfectly willing to believe that a man might not be able to forget her, despite all she'd done to that man and Theo had counted on that. His life depended on it, as well as Dharva's and the old man's.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry about the whole thing on the ship and I might have even gotten around to saying it to you, if you hadn't scuttled the Luck.." He decided to put a touch of realism into his story. She knew he wasn't stupid. She had to know he'd figured out who was to blame for that catastrophe.

"And how did you feel about that?"

"I wanted to put my hands around your white throat and strangle you."

She smiled serenely, entirely at ease with a situation that had Theo's blood pumping so hard through his veins he could hear it rushing in his ears. She waved a hand at Sol, indicating he should release his hold on Theo. Grudgingly the man complied, and Theo shook out the bruised limb.

"Did you bring the white?" Tiana asked. It took a moment for Sol to realize what she was asking, then with a wary shake of his head he turned and shuffled out of the study, closing the door firmly behind him.

Trapped in the viper's nest. Fine. He had no choice but to make the best of it. If she was willing to be cordial, then so was he. She waved a hand at the chair opposite hers, a generous hostess to the last. He unclasped his cloak and laid it over the chair back before sitting down. She appraised his armor with a curious tilt of her head.

"Familiar armor."

He shrugged. "It got me where I wanted to be."

"Hummm. I was very angry at you Theo, for your treatment of me. I wonder if I still shouldn't be." She was smooth as silk, no nervous tick, no flickering of her eyes from her victim. He had to consciously keep from moving his hands, from doing anything that might relieve the tension.

"I think sinking my ship makes it even." He tried not to sound angry at that, but a hint of it got through anyway. Tiana smiled in purest satisfaction.

"Oh, Theo, you are so emotional. I can see right through you."

"Really? What can you see?" he wondered how far down the ground was outside the window. The study was on the second floor and there were only so many bones he could break from that level.

"Did you come here looking for revenge? Retaliation for harm done that floating tub?"

"She's not a tub." he muttered in defense of his ship. "And maybe I did, of a sort. But I thought more about us. The time we shared in my cabin. I've found it very hard to get the visions of you out of my head. It seemed reconciliation was the only cure for my malady."

"Presumptuous." she said, but her voice held an undertone of teasing and her eyes a shadowed glint of speculation. "Do you think I take men to my bed because they come knocking on my door asking it? Even less so the ones that steal uninvited into my home. I am a very busy woman, Captain, to waste my time so. My affairs have been handled poorly while I was away and I find that only my guidance can set them straight."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Theo sounded appropriately grave. He looked down at this hands with the air of man pondering lost opportunities. How long had it been since he'd left Dharva and her master at the cellar stair? Spirits, let them be out of the keep and out of the gates. He had to trust the girl had as much ingenuity in letting herself out as she had getting in. No alarm had been raised so far, so he had to assume they were undetected. If he could find an out of his own now, he had no choice but to take it.

"Lady, if I've imposed, then I apologize. Perhaps we might discuss this further when you're less pressed?"

The door creaked open and Sol returned, flagon of wine in his huge hand. He sat the decanter on the small table next Tiana's chair, casting Theo a distrustful glare as he bent.

"Milady?" the big man inquired.

She waved a careless hand. "We'll discuss the solutions to Chancellor Leiben's mistakes tomorrow, Sol. You are dismissed."

He bowed his head and backed two steps away before turning his broad back on them and leaving the study. Theo watched him go, thinking that dismissal boded ill for his own chances of a clean and quick escape. He turned back and found a glass of cider colored wine being offered him. He took it, gratefully swallowing a large drought of the mellow brew.

"Don't gulp it like ale." Tiana told him, sipping delicately at her own portion. "This is the finest of Perthian vintages and meant to be savored. Taste the hint of golden pears?"

One might be more adept at discovering the subtle flavors of wine if one's life were not dangling precariously on the thread of a sorceress' good will. He obligingly took a smaller sip and nodded false comprehension to make her happy.

"Now, tell me of the visions of me that have so plagued you these last days, so that I may better decide whether to forgive you or not."

 

It was easier getting out than it had been getting in, even with the additional burden of master Pyphin to hinder Dharva's passage. He didn't weigh much and Dharva was a girl well used to physical vigor's, so she had little trouble shouldering his scant weight and spiriting the both of them across the darkened courtyard to the scaffolding inside the walls. There was no sign of the gateguard and not being one to argue with good fortune, Dharva leaned her master against the one gate while she pulled he other open wide enough to get the two of them past. She would just have to risk the misplaced inner bar. There was no help for it and maybe, just maybe it would help to facilitate Theo's escape.

Spirits, she hoped he would not be long on their heels. They had not had the time to discuss where they would meet up, things going so far afield of the plan he had originally conceived, so she decided it would be best to make her way back to the woods to the spot he had left her earlier. It was the single place they both knew. Only she wanted to avoid the small settlement and any chance of being spotted by a villager plagued with insomnia and the only way to do that was trace the wall of the fortress around to the cliffs and follow the sea border to the distant line of forest.

Master Pyphin, getting heavier on her arm with each step she took, was muttering incoherently about the temperature of his tea and scalded lips, the state of his library and how badly in need it was of reorganization, how mistress Varley had skimped on the amount of berries in her preserves this season and other various topics, all of which Dharva murmured yes or no to when prompted.

The way back seemed far longer than the trip to the fortress had taken. She was forced to stop once, when Pyphin's legs just gave out beneath him and he crumpled, taking her to the ground with him. For a long while she huddled close to him, dark, indistinguishable shapes against the rocky edge of the cliffs. He looked up at her during that time, his eyes sad and bewildered and asked.

"Dharva, where are we?"

"In Danar, master." she whispered back.

"Why?"

"I don't know." she answered truthfully.

He shut his eyes and leaned against her, finally murmuring. "I fear a great darkness is coming. I think I told her where it is."

"Where what is, master?" She did not know if he were in the midst of drugged ravings or not.

"The Second Stone, girl. Why aren't we home yet? I've a taste for boiled cabbage."

She got him to his feet, and they staggered on. The dark line of forest was not so far ahead now. The second stone? What did he mean by that? Was it merely the imaginings of his addled wits or had Tiana actually inquired after that archaic term? And if so, why? If she recalled her history correctly, and she better with an esteemed historian as a teacher, the second stone was somewhere in Danar, the first in Northern Khell and the third in the caverns of Ishvan. She shivered to think of what a Kerisai sorceress would want with the location of the second stone. What good it would do anyone was beyond Dharva, since the seals were unbreakable by mortal hand, imprisoning forever the two great spirits that had been the first summoned ever by man. Kerisai and Kurisar. The dark demon and the light. Generations upon generations upon generations of magic lore and learning had been founded upon the power those great spirits had offered. And in the end they had been too powerful, too consumed with avarice over the worship mortal man might give one or the other of them and they had fought. They had threatened to tear the world apart, until those that worshipped them and preyed to them for power had no choice but to put them down. Great sacrifices were made, and unbreakable seals were crafted and for all intents and purposes Kerisai and Kurisar were imprisoned for eternity.

What did it matter if some dark sorceress found the second stone. She couldn't break it. She could do nothing more than sit in front of it and bemoan a power she could never release. But then, Master Pyphin knew more about the stones than she. When he was of a saner mind, she could ask him what possible danger Tiana could pose to the impenetrable second seal.

 

The flagon of wine was gone and another like it, brought by a very timid serving boy who scurried from the room like a rabbit in the den of a fox, once he'd fulfilled his purpose. Theo had discovered a great deal about Tiana's holdings and her business on the shores of Danar. She dealt in shipping, mining, the harvest of lumber and produce and had dealings with slave traders who plied the inner territories of the continent. She was a very wealthy woman.

He had also discovered about himself, a talent for honeyed words he'd only suspected he'd possessed. She was only too pleased with his efforts, and somewhere near the end of the second flagon had joined him in his chair, more interested in whispering nonsense in his ear than speaking of financial fiascoes.

She was quite drunk. He was close to being there himself. When she suggested she show him her bedroom, he could only stare at her, befuddled and at a loss for any politic way of refusing. With the feel of her in his lap and the smell of her in his nostrils, he wasn't half certain he wanted to. She slid off of him and pulled him to his feet, slipping under his arm and pressing her body close. Out the door, up to the next level and they were in the same hall he had surveyed some hours past in his search for master Pyphin.

The lady's room was at the end of the hall behind the ornate set of double doors. They held each other up in their passage towards it. He was considerably more unstable on his feet than he'd thought. Perthian white was a formidable brew.

Behind the doors of Tiana's private chambers was a masterful creation of silken tapestries, shadowed, pillow strewn alcoves and corners partitioned with filmy veils. Candles perched about the rooms in the hundreds, in votaries, candelabra's, ornate glass and wrought metal holders, in flat sheets upon brass plates. The smell of incense permeated the air, a heady spice that was reminiscent of the lighter scent of Tiana's skin.

"So what do you think?" She whispered, twining her arms about his neck, nuzzling the skin under his jaw.

"It's a little dark to tell."

A sly smile curved her lips. One by one flames leapt to life on the wicks of dead candles, casting the walls with a flickering, orange glow. He was appalled by the casual display. A frightening reminder of just what Tiana was and how prickly backing out from this situation he'd gotten himself into was going to be.

"And now?"

"Interesting."

She kissed him, reminding him just how talented she was in that area. His head was spinning, his body was responding and if he wasn't careful he'd end up under the sheets with her. No matter how nicely he had apologized to her tonight, when she woke up tomorrow and found out her prisoner was fled, he'd wager the remainder of his life would be short and not at all pleasant.

While the kiss lingered he turned her, so that her back pressed against the wall next the doors. He brought his hands up to her face, tangled his fingers in her hair and pulled back looking meaningfully into her limpid eyes.

"Tomorrow," he whispered. "when you wake up, just pretend none of this ever happened."

A flicker of puzzlement crossed her features, just before he slammed her head back into the wall. Her eyes rolled up she uttered a surprised little sound of pain, then she slumped in his arms, unconscious. He stood there a moment, using the wall as support as he collected his wits, then swung her into his arms and deposited her on the bed.

There were doors leading to a balcony. He flung them open, running to the edge and looking down to see how far the ground was. No ground met his eyes. It was a sheer plummet of hundreds of feet to the tumbled base of the cliffs. The sea crashed against the rocks in endless violence. His head reeled from the perspective and he cursed the wine that so befuddled his senses.

He spun around, putting his back to the balcony wall, the fact that if he went outside her bedroom doors and tried to navigate the halls, Sol would be watching, waiting for just such a move, blared painfully vivid. He had to find another way.

He looked to the side and saw running along the outside wall of the keep a ledge a foot wide. He stared at it for some moments in dread acceptance of the knowledge that navigating such a treacherous walk might have been easy for him, had he not been drunk and the night not been quite so dark. His choices were limited. With one look back at the still woman on the bed, he leapt onto the balcony and across the ledge.

 

 

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