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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Eight

 

Trees loomed ahead, a pitch line of darkness that the scant moonlight could not penetrate. Dharva kept going by strength of will alone, since her physical strength was failing fast. Pyphin was a limp weight at her side, only occasionally rousing enough to try and place some of his own weight on his legs. It wasn't enough to give Dharva's strained muscles any relief. Only a little further and the woods would give her shelter to rest a bit, to regain enough stamina to get master Pyphin to the tree where she had left her supplies, if she could ever find it again, with her wits in such a scattered frenzy.

The shadow of the trees engulfed them. She staggered a few yards into the wood before dropping gratefully to her knees on the pine needle cushioned ground. She let Pyphin down gently and he promptly curled up on his side, mumbling incoherently to himself. Dharva dropped her head to her knees and concentrated on breathing. Her stomach hurt from her exertions, her limbs were shaky. The amazement that she had actually rescued master Pyphin was slowly working it's way into her conscious mind.

She could not quite believe how easy it had been. How absolutely simple to walk in, find her master and walk out with him. This Tiana was not so fearful a foe after all. She was terribly lax in her keep security, or was it merely that she never expected anyone to have the gall to try and breach it? She had people watching her back in far off Kava and the port of Vahnatu, but relatively little in the way of precautions at the heart of her domain.

Now if only Theo would hurry up and join her, Dharva could properly thank the spirits who were looking out for her. She laid a hand on her master's shoulder and felt the slight tremor of his shivering. She arranged the cloak to cover more of his frail body and leaned down to whisper.

"Stay here a moment. I'll be right back."

If he heard her he made no motion of it. She climbed heavily to her feet and went back to the edge of the wood, staring across the darkened fields towards the fortress, straining her eyes against the night to see if she could pick out anyone crossing the distance. Nothing but the shapes of herd animals, dozing away the night hours. To the west the line of forest stretched, and somewhere along that ambiguous border was the spot she was supposed to have held. She was not certain she could find it again.

Teeth gnawing at her lip, she turned to go back to Pyphin and as she did, movement in the darkness caught her eye. It was a mere slither of darkness against the shadow of trees, stealthy and quiet, but her mind identified it as foreign and sent up a cry of alarm. Spirits, she'd been looking towards the fortress for trouble and never bothered to beware the forest.

She drew her knife, wondering if she had the energy to summon up a few blasts of fiery defense. She certainly was in no frame of mind to create anything more complex of nature. Slipping past the rough barked, straight boles of pine trees, she returned to where she'd left her old master. He seemed to be sleeping and for fear of him making some outcry when she waked him, she placed her fingers over his mouth as she shook his shoulder.

"We've got to go." she whispered close to his ear, when she thought she'd roused him. "But quietly, please."

He made no sound while she helped him up, so she assumed he was coherent enough to understand the danger. With one hand around his waist and the other clutching the knife she moved westward as silently as she could with her burden.

A figure came out of the shadows at her, the dully gleaming curved length of a sword flashing towards her face. Aghast, Dharva pushed Pyphin from her, throwing up her own blade to fend off the attack. The steel came down upon the edge of her long knife, sliding down the blade until it caught at the hilt. She hadn't the strength to throw the attack off and was forced backwards. She stepped in a rut and her ankle twisted, destroying her balance altogether. She staggered, the blade opposite her drew back in preparation for another cut, and from somewhere close by someone cried out.

"Stop, Tarith."

The blade stopped. The figure pulled back, spray legged and breathing hard enough that Dharva could hear it from her half kneeling position on the ground. She could also hear the sound of feet rustling through the pine mulch, converging on her from several directions from the interior of the wood.

With frantic determination she scrambled over to her master, who was vainly trying to push himself up off of his hands and knees. She held her knife at ready, waiting, ready to summon every last bit of strength to her name to call up her spirits, and then the need dissipated when out of the darkness Collin's figure ran towards her.

He slid to his knees on the ground before her, one hand gripping the hilt of a short sword, the other going to her shoulder with a grip so firm it hurt.

"Lass, are you all right? By the spirits, you found him." He barely heeded her nod of affirmation, his attention focused on the old man, his hands touching Pyphin's face, feeling for temperature, for abrasion, Dharva knew not what he might discover in this darkness.

Other men gathered around them, Luck crewmen, she thought, half recognizing faces of men she'd only met in passing. A larger man, the first mate, whom she'd traded few words with, yet whose name and figure stood out in memory from the sheer bulk of his size alone, loomed over Collin's shoulder.

"Theo. Where's Theo?"

She stared up, ashamed and blurted. "He said he would follow me. The cook discovered us - - I think it was the cook - - and he drew her away. He'll be along, I know he will, but he won't know to look here. There's a place further inland where I was supposed to be. That's where he'll go. He'll be all right, I know he will."

She looked into the dark shadows of Wing's eyes and tried to convey the faith she made herself feel. He shifted, as the men around him did, in restlessness, not satisfied with waiting patiently for the possibility of their captain's safe return.

"They don't know yet." Her voice was a small lost thing in the face of their apprehension. She wrapped her arms protectively about master Pyphin's thin shoulders. "They'd have raised the alarm. Roused the town. Give him a little time."

 

Theo's foot slipped on the slick stone of the ledge and a fist sized chunk of mortar tumbled down to be swallowed up by the angry sea below. His fingers clutched at deep crevices between stones the size of shipping crates and he pressed himself against that cold wall, shivering, head spinning and slightly nauseous. The bile rising in his throat was the crowning jewel in the plethora of delightful events the night had offered. The only thing left for was for the ledge to crumble altogether and for him to tumble to his doom. He doubted anyone would ever find the body.

He wished Dharva years of guilt over his meaningless death. It was the least she could do, considering what he'd gone through the last few days because of her. He lifted his cheek from the rough surface of stone and eyed the ledge before him. He was well and truly beyond the point of no return now, and might as well go on. No use clinging hysterically to one spot, waiting for the wind to rush in and sweep him from his perch.

He inched along, growing bolder when the footing remained solid. The far edge of the keep was just ahead He reached the corner and looked down, seeing some fifteen feet below the top of the wall that surrounded the fortress. There was a door leading out to the walk atop the wall, and over that door an arched slate roof that was within easy jumping distance. It was merely a matter of landing on the landward side of the slant and not the seaward one. He had no desire to hit and slide right off and over the edge of the wall. On a better day he would have trusted his reflexes, at the moment he had to draw several breaths in order to persuade his balking sense of self preservation that he knew what he was doing.

He landed rather well, considering, only dislodging a few tiles of slate and scrapping the palms of his hands when he lost balance at the end and had to catch himself on the stone balcony of the wall. Elation at the success buffered his spirits. He looked down at the ground on the outside of the wall. Another drop of almost fifteen feet. That distance could be halved by merely dangling from the top of the wall and then dropping only a little more than his body length to the earth. After that ledge and that jump, he was not about to let a little thing like a stone wall daunt him.

He climbed over the wall and dropped to freedom and no one in the keep was the wiser. No one in the keep had been prepared for the type of invasion that had been practiced against them. After tonight, Tiana would not be so trusting. After tonight, she was likely to become rather frenzied in her efforts of retaliation.

It occurred to him as he trotted across the field towards the forest that his ship, helpless at dock would likely become a target. His men in Vahnatu would not be safe. What plans Dharva might have to get her old master away, he did not begin to fathom, but he and his were soundly stranded until the Luck was seaworthy again.

There was a particular tree at the edge of the wood whose oddly shaped trunk he had marked as a point of reference. It was not hard to find, even with cloud cover drifting overhead and masking much of the moon's light. If the girl had any sense she'd have come back here. He hoped desperately that she had gotten out of the keep with her mentor. It was appalling to think that his dalliance with Tiana had been for nothing.

When he was close to where he thought the place he had left her to be, he softly called her name. Undergrowth rustled and someone stepped out from the cover of a thick based old tree. It was much too large to be Dharva.

"You took you're damned time." A familiar and irate voice spat at him.

"Wing? What are you doing here?" Theo asked, astonished. Two other of his crewmen moved out from the shadows of trees, grins of relief showing faintly in the darkness. He stood trying to collect his wits while Wing clasped him in a rough, one armed embrace, then pushed him back in the fashion of a mother, glad to see her child unhurt but furious over the danger he had put himself in.

"We were just about to go after you. It's been an hour or more since we found the girl."

"Dharva made it."

"And the old man. Should we be expecting pursuit?"

"Uhh, not right this moment. But soon, I'd wager. Wing, I think I've made a very bad enemy in Tiana."

Wing stared at him and asked morosely. "Worse than before?"

"Most assuredly."

"So, one could assume that Vahnatu port will not be a safe harbor for us to return to in the future?"

"One might."

Wing didn't comment further, merely shook his head and indicated the forest to the east. "That way."

"What's that way?"

"The sea." Wing replied and refused to say more, taking off into the woods with the two seamen on his heels. Theo followed, figuring that he would hear more of just what Wing thought of this escapade when they reached whatever destination they were headed for.

 

* * * * *

Silken sheets bunched under the sorceress when she stretched. Her limbs were languorous from sleep and her head throbbed with the after effects of too much wine. For a while she lay with eyes closed, trying to drive away the hurt, but it was insistent in it's persecution. Her mind was fogged with vague remembrances of the night. Pleasing reminiscences of dalliance with the handsome young captain. The satisfying recollection of his repentance over past sins towards her. Tiana did so love supplication, although it was odd that his sweet words stood out in her memory more than what they had done afterward. She reached out a hand, searching for the warmth of a body next to hers and found nothing but the cool crispness of sheets. She slitted her eyes, the hazy light of early morning making her wince. She was alone in bed, lying atop covers that looked to be barely rumpled. She could not comprehend, for a moment where he might be. She knew quite well he had come here with her, and trusted that Sol would have kept an eye to the door to prevent the wonderings of a stranger about the keep.

She attempted to sit up and her skull impacted with pain. Instinctively she brought a hand up to feel the back of her head and her fingers touched on a sensitive lump and the crusty remnants of dried blood. Eyes wide, she stared down at the sheets she had laid upon and beheld a small stain of blood. She drew a deep breath, shaky with a burgeoning suspicion.

Fool, she thought. What a fool to take a man at his word that broke into the sanctity of one's own home. Especially so when that man had a grudge to settle. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, taking a moment to center her balance as the room swam out of focus. She forced calm upon herself, forced tranquillity and her vision stabilized. Carefully she trod to the door, flinging it open and looking out into hall.

Sol sat on a padded bench along the wall, chin resting on his broad chest as he dozed. An irrational rage began to swell within Tiana. She snatched a brass candlestick from a table inside her doorway and hurled it at her sleeping guard. It hit the side of his head and rebounded. Sol jerked awake with a yelp, starting to his feet, staring about himself in a frenzy.

"You incompetent bafoon." Tiana shrieked. "Where is he?"

Sol blinked at her in a moment's incomprehension, then his eyes widened in realization and he stepped forward. "Lady. He did not pass this way."

"How would you know? You've been asleep, you dolt."

A trickle of blood ran down the side of his face. She was glad and wished him pain for his ineptitude. Spirits, where was Darak when she needed him? Sol had never been the brains of her two personal guards.

"He hit me." she seethed, hardly able to conceive that someone would have the gall to do such a thing. Sol blanched and looked properly horrified.

"Well don't just stand there. Go alert the guards. Find him." She waved a hand at him and he flinched, too contrite to utter apologetic excuses. He took off down the hall at a lumbering run, leaving his mistress seething in her doorway.

This insult would not go unpunished, could not, for her honor was at stake. Four generations her family had reigned supreme in this little portion of the Danar coast, since her great grandfather had claimed the lagoon at what was to become Vahnatu port. He had been a shipbuilder who had left the vigorous competition of Khell to make his fortune on the dark continent. He named the port that had grown up around his shipyards after his lady wife, Vahnatu. His son had grown to power after him, and his sons after him controlling every bit of commerce that happened within the borders of their holdings.

Tiana was no exception save that her interests in garnering power lay further afield than that of her ancestors. She preferred to delve into the realm of magic to accomplish her goals and thanks to the growing practice of the dark magic of Kerisai in Danar she had ample tutelage. It was through Kerisai that she planned to gather more power to herself than her venerable great grandfather could have ever imagined. It was only a matter of finding the right information.

As her mind skimmed lovingly over images of herself the mistress of powers beyond human scope, her thoughts went to the prisoner she held in the dungeons below. The same dungeons built by her grandfather to hold pirates and black marketeers who infringed on the families shipping profits. That old man was the key, but he was as stubborn an old coot as she had ever met. Even drugged beyond rationality he refused to tell her the information she needed to know and spirits forbid she had the time or patience to go through his handwritten notes. For a learned man he had the illegible script of a child. The only person he had spoken more than a few words to in the last several weeks had been the same irascible captain that vexed her now.

An appalling notion hit her of a sudden. Theo hadn't asked her about her supposed father and he'd shown enough concern on his ill-fated ship. Not even a brief inquiry on the old man's health, as if he wished to avoid the subject of Pyphin entirely or - - he already knew the answer to that question.

With a hissing explosion of air between her teeth she flew out of her room, bare feet and all. Down the stairs to the lower level she went, careless of the cold or the shadow. She made light of her own where there was none with hardly effort or thought. Let me be wrong, she repeated over and over in her head on her way to the dungeons. She had spent too much effort getting the old sorcerer to loose him in such an embarrassing manner.

She reached the row of cells and threw back the bolt to Pyphin's. Into the cell she called a hovering globe of light, throwing the walls into stark relief and showing plainly that nothing lived within the small room save a startled trio of mice that scurried into the dirty straw for cover.

Her cry of rage echoed through the dungeon and pernicious wisps of spirits seeped out of the in-between to coil about her in her wrath. It was through them that she discovered the magic. They could not communicate with her, not the little ones that usually came to do her bidding, but they leaked perceptions. To a sorceress keen on picking up on the nuances of her attendant spirit's moods, it was clear that they sensed the recent presence of other's of their kin.

She stalked out of the cell, following that scent of magic to the far door at the end of the corridor. Upon inspection it was clear that the frame of the door, the part housing the seat of the dead bolt, had been burned away with the aid of fire spirits. It was a crude method of entry, she could have thought of a half dozen easier and less detectable ways off the top of her head. Any magic user worth their weight could have, which meant that the culprit of this was not well schooled in the arts. It also meant that Theo had an accomplice.

Or, Theo was someone else's accomplice, and considering how well-known Pyphin was in the stuffy circle of Kurisar magicians, any one of his acquaintances might have discovered his unfortunate disappearance and set out to find him.

A guard pelted down the stairs, pounding up to her with the look of a man with thrilling news to tell.

"Lady, Sol is readying the men to search the woods, he waits on your orders."

She stood thinking, wondering if having the old sorcerer back in her clutches would do her any more good than it had before. Wondering if perhaps he might be more willing to talk to his rescuers than he had to his kidnapper. It was a thought to dwell on. This land was hers, and she certainly had the resources to bide her time and observe. Observation just might get her something that sheer force had not.

"Tell him to wait a bit." she made a decision. "I think we'll let him find a comfortable place to hide, then we'll see what happens."

 

 

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