I’m glad the path we follow edges the borders of Dimmingwood. Do the others take this route for my benefit? It seems like years since I’ve felt the soft earth of the forest floor beneath my feet, smelled the mingled scent of leaf mold and pine, and let the dappled sunlight and leaf patterns play across my face.
But I force myself to stick to the road, only looking on my home from a distance. I don’t dare venture into the shadows. I tremble, even beneath the warm light of day and with strong companions at my side. Something dark calls to me from within that forest, a voiceless whisper inside my head. One I fear I don’t have the strength to resist. The magic my ancestors bequeathed me throbs at the call of that other force, and I struggle to silence their pained cries in my mind. How long before I can wield my magic again without outside interference? I have no answers.
And so I heave a sigh, half sorry and half relieved as the road peels away from Dimming’s borders and leads me in a new direction.
Immediately after being turned out of the Praetor’s audience chamber, I was escorted away by a trio of Fists down the same corridors I’d passed through before. Even knowing I wasn’t traveling toward death this time, my heart was heavy. I faced an even worse fate now. I’d become the Praetor’s creature. And I didn’t know who I despised most for it—my enemy or myself.
I wanted to believe I’d sworn the oath for Fleet’s sake, but in my heart I wondered if that were true. Had I acted to protect my friend or to save my own life? Had I lost my nerve at the crucial moment?
I was scarcely aware of my surroundings as I passed down the long, empty corridors, my mind fully focused on what had transpired back in the audience chamber. I could still see the confused look on Fleet’s face as his hands were bound and he was dragged away, protesting, between two Fists. Little had he known when he befriended me what a high cost he would pay for our association.
I shook the image from my head, even as I became aware of a new set of footsteps adding itself to our number. One of my escorts saluted and moved aside to allow the newcomer to fall in beside me.
“Impressive,” I remarked. “So you’re commanding Fists these days? What was the price of your new promotion, Under-Lieutenant?”
Terrac said nothing and I risked a glance at him.
“You’ve grown,” I admitted grudgingly. “I almost didn’t know you back there with the Praetor.”
It was true. I was used to viewing my one-time friend as a boy and it was disconcerting to realize he’d become a man since our last meeting. I wondered if I looked different to him too.
“I knew you easily enough,” he said, as if following my thoughts.
“I’ll bet you did. It’s hard to forget the face of a friend you’ve betrayed.”
He missed a step, abruptly dropping his confident demeanor. “I guess I figured by now you’d have grown up as much inside as out,” he said. “My mistake.”
I’d overpowered his newfound self-assurance in a single stroke, and sensing his annoyance, I couldn’t help grinning.
“Whatever it is you’ve come to say to me, say it, priest boy. I’ve known you long enough to recognize the way you work your jaw when you’ve got something on your mind.”
He frowned, glancing around. “Keep a civil tongue when you address me, woods thief.”
I laughed. “By my greatmother, you always were a pompous little twit. You might have grown into a Fist’s uniform and learned a trick or two with that shiny new sword at your side, but you haven’t changed any more than I have.”
I noticed the guards around us exchanging amused glances and was pleased my darts were hitting the mark.
I was startled when Terrac seized my arm and dragged me to a halt while snapping at his underlings, “Return to your duties. I’ll escort her out.”
“But, sir—” one protested.
“I said you are dismissed.”
Even I had to admire the authority he put behind the command. If his men were a little slow to follow it, they moved away nonetheless.
“You shouldn’t allow that,” I warned when they were out of earshot. “Let them drag their steps on the little orders and they’ll never respect you when the time comes for serious ones.”
“Don’t you suppose I know that?” he retorted. “Why do you think I sent them away? I can’t have them hearing you talk down to me or worst of all, let them see me permitting it. I’m fighting an uphill battle here, Ilan. I’ve yet to earn their respect. They still regard me as the orphaned woods brat who got a free leg up by having the right connections.”
“Connections?” I scoffed. “What connections? You’re a farmer’s son from Cros. Not to make less of your fine history of command or the long years of experience behind you, but I confess their speculation is mine.”
Ignoring the way his eyes narrowed at my sarcasm, I couldn’t resist adding, “Just how did you manage it? You were always good at whining and scheming until you got what you wanted, but I don’t remember you ever being especially ambitious in the old days.”
“People change,” he said stiffly. “I’ve realized what I want from life and have found the courage to pursue it.”
“That wasn’t my question, although it’s an interesting one. I asked how you managed to obtain this leg up, as you call it. Who supplied the ladder?”
He looked uneasy. “Never mind. I can’t talk about that. Just pay attention when I tell you not to mock me before my underlings. I put up with it today for old time’s sake, but don’t make it a habit.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something? I’m under the Praetor’s protection now,” I pointed out. “None of his lackeys have the power to lay a finger on me without his nod. So I think what you mean to say is that you request I show you proper deference before your peers. As a favor, no less.”
He sighed. “Fine. Word it any way you like. I’ve no time for games and this isn’t what I came to discuss with you.”
“Then why did you come to me? To salve your conscience for standing by while your lord imprisoned Fleet?”
He cut a sidelong glance at me. “What is this Fleet’s fate to you? Is there some involvement I should know about?”
I shrugged. “He’s just a friend. Even if he were more, that’d be no concern of yours, would it?”
He dodged the question. “Your friend will be treated well enough so long as he’s cooperative, although it’d be no great loss to the world if he weren’t. His list of crimes is long enough to stretch from here to the next province.”
“I suppose you’d say the same about Kipp and the others? What excuse has your overworked conscience invented for allowing your master to string up your one-time friends?”
“They were your comrades, never mine,” he answered, but I sensed a flicker of unease within him. “I was never party to your outlawry and was disgusted by the whole business. Don’t make it sound as if they were a lot of innocents murdered for no wrong doing. I assure you I had ample opportunity during my days in Dimming to observe acts vile enough to condemn every one of them.”
“And is that what you did?” I asked, a sinking sensation borrowing deep in my belly as I imagined him witnessing against them.
“It wasn’t like that,” he hurried to assure me. “I could have spoken against them, but I didn’t. At the end of the day, my testimony wasn’t necessary.”
I hid my relief, unsure why it mattered so much that he hadn’t taken part in their fates.
He didn’t allow me to take comfort for long, saying, “But I warn you, if the day ever comes when I must do my honest duty in that regard, I will. I won’t carry out outlaw executions with any pleasure but I’ll do what the Praetor requires of me.”
I blinked, remembering the gentle boy he had once been. “You’ve truly changed.”
“If I have, it started with you. You’re the one who saved me all those years ago, introduced me to the band of the Red Hand and goaded me into fending for myself at the expense of others.”
“I wouldn’t say goaded.”
“I would. You were always mocking me, challenging me to stand up for myself.”
“Someone had to. You were pathetic.”
He surprised me by smiling. “Yes, I was. But in a good way, I think.”
He looked sadly reminiscent, as if mourning something forever lost. Then he shook his head. “Well, there’s no use thinking of that. Obviously I was never meant for the priesthood. I’ve found my place now, although it might never have happened if not for the night Brig died. The night you picked up that bow. I see you’re still carrying it.”
I didn’t stop him as he reached out to stroke the finely grained wood of the bow. I was getting used to peoples’ strange attraction to the weapon, the way everyone’s attention was eventually drawn to it.
“Maybe it’s nonsense,” he said, “but somehow I feel both our lives started changing after you found this thing. Almost like the bow started it all. You see how being with you again wakes strange ideas in my mind?”
I squirmed. “Any strange notions are your own. They’re nothing to do with me or the bow.”
“Maybe.” He sounded unconvinced. “I don’t suppose you’d ever consider giving it up?”
“What? The bow?”
“I don’t blame you for being surprised. It’s true I’ve never had any skill at shooting. But there’s something about this weapon. I’d pay you well for it. Whatever you think it’s worth.”
I quelled the jealousy that stirred in me at the very thought of another person in possession of my bow.
I said, “You couldn’t meet such a price. Anyway, it’s not for sale. I’d die before parting with it.” I didn’t realize until the words slipped out of my mouth how much I meant them.
“Die?” He raised his brows. “That’s a strong statement. There aren’t many things in this world worth dying for.”
I shrugged. Under his scrutiny I was suddenly eager to be away. “I’ve been given my orders.” I reminded him with a resentful emphasis on the last word. “I think I’d better waste no more time in carrying them out. It would grieve me to break my solemn oath to my new master on the first day.” I turned away.
“Wait.” He caught my arm, looking suddenly hesitant. “The reason I came after you is because I have something to say. It’s about the last time we saw each other. Remember the night of our secret meeting in the water cemetery? I just want you to know I regret being so ungrateful back then. I was going through a difficult time, but that’s no excuse, not when you risked so much to rescue me. I’ve often thought of it since.”
“You’ve thought about me?” I asked. “I’m surprised you could find the time, what with a Fist’s busy training schedule and the important new duties of an Under-Lieutenant.”
“Don’t be so flippant. I’m trying to apologize.”
“Then you’re wasting your breath because you won’t be forgiven.”
“Look, we’re both on the same side. We’ll have to work together in the future.”
That was enough to sap my stores of civility. “You and I,” I said, “will never be on the same side of anything. Never again.”
I’d made him angry, but it would take one who knew him well to see it. “Then who is on your side, Ilan? The great Rideon? I heard he cast you out.”
“What do you know about that?” I hissed.
“The Praetor has his sources of information.”
“You mean his spies? No doubt you have one or two planted among Rideon’s men even now.”
“Unfortunately, no. It was the captured criminals who told us so much. Your friend Kipp and the others.”
I winced at the reminder. “If they confessed all they knew, why were they hanged? Didn’t Kipp admit to being a member of my circle, one of those performing a valuable service to the Praetor and the Provinces?”
Terrac frowned. “You’re trying to discover how much we know about your goings on in the forest. I’ll be cooperative because I believe the Praetor wishes you to have the answer to this question. Your friends, when captured, have received and will continue to receive the same treatment as any other criminals, despite their recent good deeds for the province. My lord believes this will spur their determination to better perform the tasks ahead of them. You, their leader, are an exception because you must be permitted to come and go freely while reporting to the Praetor. But the rest of your unfortunate circle remain under the threat of death should they fall into our hands.”
I swallowed my outrage to ask, “And suppose my friends refuse to accept these unfair terms?”
“Should they refuse to follow you into the Praetor’s service, they ought to know this. Our lord is not a man to defy lightly. I know him well enough to assure you that if any of you were to mock him with a betrayal, he would make hunting down and destroying your band his greatest priority. Do not place too great a faith in your ability to evade his reach. He would throw every Fist and mercenary soldier he could muster into your dark woods until he had exterminated you to the last. You don’t want to feel the fire of such a man’s fury.”
Little could he know I had felt it before. Images came to mind of a burning cottage, a line of horsemen riding down my father, my mama pressing a brooch into my hand…
I shoved the memories aside.
Terrac was saying, “But, there is no reason for despair. The Praetor is as merciful as he is vengeful, and if you do all he demands, pardons may be granted to those who merit them.”
“Those who merit…?” I knew then that all of us were doomed. The Praetor would never give up his hold on us. We might spend countless years in servitude and the Praetor would forever hold those pardons dangling over us.
I tried to set aside that problem for another day. My first task was to free Fleet and I’d been advised of only one way to do that. Suddenly, I had a thousand tasks on my mind, all of which needed to be carried out at once. I didn’t realize I was walking away from Terrac without a word of good-bye until I came to the great brass-bound doors that led out of the keep. By the time I looked back, my one-time friend was gone.
It struck me then that I had failed to ask him the one question that had been teasing at the back of my mind throughout our encounter. Why was he wearing my brooch? The one my mother had given me so many years ago and which had disappeared from my possession when Terrac left Dimmingwood?
I couldn’t imagine why he would have stolen the object, but of one thing I was sure. I wanted it back.