Book: B01786HSBM (F)

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Next: Chapter Four

Chapter Three

 

“During the patrols our squad follows a very specific formation,” Lief began. “A handful of soldiers scout ahead, and the rest flank the very front and back of our pack. The knights are next and take center. Crammed in the very middle is us,” The lead mage cleared his throat. “Sounds simple, right? It is. But every time a new Combat mage joins the squad they inevitably try to play hero and break formation at the first sight of danger.”

“Has a mage ever broken formation just to run for his life?” Ian inquired innocently.

The lead mage rolled his eyes. “How I have missed your senseless humor.”

Ian nudged his mare closer to Lief with a chuckle. “Admit it, you pined for me every night while I was away.”

Ray and I exchanged smirks. The lead mage was also a Ferren’s Keep native, and so the two older boys had a whole slew of insults to throw at one another whenever Ian deemed Lief’s speeches too dry.

In the past two years I had almost forgotten what it was like to be friends with the curly-haired mage. Hearing him get along with our new leader now was bittersweet. I was happy to see Ian smiling again, cracking jokes and lightening moods, but also sad. Because I knew no matter how much time we spent together our friendship would never be like that again.

When Darren had first turned me away I had been devastated. What I had done to Ian was no better.

The difference was our motives. Darren’s actions had been justified. He’d been trying to do what was best for the kingdom. Mine? Wrong, selfish, and cruel. I had used one of my best friends to shield myself from feelings for another, and when those feelings had finally gotten to be too strong I had tossed him aside.

Ian had forgiven me the day of his ascension, but that didn’t erase the past. Our friendship would never be the same. And I had only myself to blame.

“We lost two Combat mages that day.” Lief’s story carried through my thoughts. “Sir Gavin doesn’t usually yell but you should have seen him. He lost his voice after three hours of shouting at the rest of us. It didn’t matter that the ones who had disobeyed his orders were dead—he held every one of us accountable. Told us if we ever saw one of the other mages try to march to the front of enemy lines we had better stop them unless we wished to be demoted and sent to some far away town with no action at all.”

“That hardly seems fair,” I said.

Lief raised a brow. “It’s not meant to be fair.”

Ray coughed. “And what if someone—say Ryiah—decides to take off on her own and threatens me with a pain casting?”

I guffawed and the boy winked at me.

“How am I supposed to stop her from breaking formation to help one of our injured comrades? I don’t know about you or Ian, but the girl is second rank for a reason.“ Ray cast an apologetic glance at Paige. “My apologies but I don’t think you can stop her either. Not without magic.”

My guard glared at Ray in reply.

“Get help. Try to stop her however you can.” Lief turned his attention to me with a furrowed brow. “You aren’t planning to do something reckless, are you?”

Ian chuckled somewhere behind me.

“Of course not!” Even as I said it, I couldn’t help thinking how grateful I was that the rest of them didn’t know about my mission in Dastan Cove. Darren had blackmailed our leader Mira into leaving out my antics in our report to Commander Chen. Which was a good thing because if it had been public knowledge, then Ray would have realized his hypothetical scenario had actually happened.

“I am very good at following orders.” Most of the time, anyway. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

Lief studied me for a moment in contemplative silence, and then with a sigh went on to explain the squad’s routine. I listened attentively with my eyes combing the road ahead. It was our second day of duty. All around me were the remains of great pines, charred and needleless in the aftermath of the infamous Caltothian attack one year before. A quarter of the northern forest had gone up in flames.

I could still taste the bitter ash. My lungs constricted just remembering the fire, the way I could barely breathe, the way the world had thundered—just for an instant—as Eve gave herself to save the prince and me.

Some of the vegetation had returned, but for this patch the forest was just a field of black, towering trunks. In permanent mourning of those we had lost.

We crossed several small streams before making camp in a clearing fifteen miles later. The setting sun had transformed into a deep magenta.

Every man saw to his own horse, making sure it was brushed down, watered, and fed, but the soldiers saw to most of the camp’s upkeep: pitching tents, preparing the meal, taking inventory, and collecting wood. They also did a rotation for sentry duty.

The rest of our party—the twenty-four knights and five mages—spent each evening discussing strategy with Lief and Sir Gavin. We learned the specifics of the territory patrols; the names of the bordering villages most destined for trouble; and reviewed general tactics.

At the third day’s afternoon break, Sir Gavin addressed the question all the new recruits had been not-so-silently pondering.

“I’ve heard many of you ask your comrades when we should expect to run into the Caltothians. The answer is simple: not now, and not on the road.” He cracked his neck as he spoke. “The enemy is far more likely to raid one of the small villages straddling the border than ambush an armed regiment. Even then, I expect their number to be few and ill-prepared at that.”

“But what about the attack last year in Ferren?” The words spilled from my lips before I could stop them. “The Caltothians didn’t seem ill-prepared then.” Beside me I caught two of the new soldiers and Ray nodding in agreement.

Sir Gavin was silent for a moment while several soldiers exchanged knowing looks. When the lead knight finally answered it was with a bitter truth. “I am in full accord, Ryiah, but what you must realize is by now the Caltothians will have heard the rumors that King Lucius is actively citing Caltoth’s most recent assault as a breach in the Great Compromise.”

My confidence faltered. A break in the treaty was an open declaration of war. Everyone knew the participating rulers would automatically turn against the noncompliant country. It was what had kept peace between Jerar, Caltoth, the Borea Isles, and Pythus for almost a century.

“Previously Emperor Liang and King Joren refused to consider the Crown’s complaints, but a direct assault on Ferren changed everything. The keep is too far south to be considered a territorial dispute.” Sir Gavin paused and his eyes locked on all of the recruits, me included. “Now King Lucius’s claims hold merit. Unless the king of Caltoth thinks himself a fool, he would be wise to hold off future attacks and focus his energies on disputing Jerar’s claims. Any action at this point would not be advisable on our part or the Caltothians.”

A short silence followed. The rest returned to their lunch, but I was too restless to follow. I downed the remains of my skin and then headed to the creek to refill it. I was lost in thought. Sure, I knew war was coming…

But what I hadn’t realized was how much Jerar was depending on the other countries’ blessings. I’d been so wrapped up in my apprenticeship that I had never paid much attention to politics, and what little I had heard had been limited to dowries. Sir Gavin’s words were alarming. It meant that we were at the mercy of Caltoth until the other nations decided in our favor.

And even if Caltoth was smart enough to restrain from attacking Jerar while it was under observation, there was the added fear that King Horrace might somehow sway the other nations’ favor.

Because even with Emperor Liang’s renewed alliance to Jerar, the Borea Isles would not support a breach of the Great Compromise without the backing of Pythus. They were too weak. And from the fit Blayne had thrown during this year’s ascension, it was clear even if the crown prince did obtain the hand of one of Joren’s daughters, the Pythian king was not pro-Jerar.

And King Joren already had a sister married to one of King Horrace’s brothers.

Which meant if we did not find a way to convince the others, we would end up at war with three countries instead of one. Something even a Pythian princess and my Borean dowry couldn’t fix.

“The other rulers are cowards.” Next to me Paige prodded the shore with a stick. She had come along in a bitter mood herself. “They use their distance as a crutch, claiming they are too far away to see what Caltoth is doing. We all know the truth.”

“They shouldn’t have signed the compromise unless they were willing to uphold it.” My stomach was rolling. What if they didn’t? “What if they leave us with no choice but to declare war on Caltoth without the protection of the treaty?” Are they planning on siding with the wealthiest country, or the country with the greatest army? Because Jerar was only the latter. And do we really have the greatest army if we are facing three armies combined? From all sides?

I looked down at my hands to see them shaking. Try as I might to appear unaffected, I was far from it. I hadn’t a lot of free time to think about my mission in Dastan Cove, but I still dreamed of it. What it had felt like to kill. What it had felt like to almost lose Darren.

Fighting was easy until there were consequences.

I hadn’t been close to Caine—or Eve—during the events of my second and fifth year as an apprentice, but that didn’t mean their deaths didn’t haunt me. Their memories were easy to ignore during the day, but they were always with me when I closed my eyes. I could still smell the singed flesh from the desert pyre. I could still remember the determined look in Eve’s eyes right before she gave up her life to save the prince and me. A mage’s “last stand”—a sacrifice she never should have had to make.

“We cannot afford to go to war against Caltoth, the Borea Isles, and Pythus.”

“No, we can’t.”

I turned and found Paige watching me, her expression unwavering. “I do not believe you will let it come to that, my lady.”

I frowned. If only it were up to me.

If only there was a way.

****

We picked up the bandits’ trail almost immediately.

Unfortunately for us that was the only thing that came easily.

We had received the request for aid on our second week of duty. Sir Gavin’s squad patrolled a hundred-mile grid in the northwestern territory of Jerar and three small townships fell into our route. Two of them reminded me of Demsh’aa, but the third, Pamir, was a sizeable city that was famous for its breeding grounds and the realm’s best thoroughbreds. We had only just reached the border when several envoys appeared with tales of a theft that had taken place only three days before.

Apparently Pamir’s Lord Waldyn had already sent out half the town’s local regiment to hunt down the thieves, but they had returned empty-handed. Small town regiments were expected to stay close to home. They didn’t have the resources for a long hunt. After all, most were needed at home to stand guard and keep a watchful eye on the remaining livestock in case the bandits decided to strike twice.

Since Pamir was a part of our patrols, it came down to Sir Gavin’s squad to seek out the offenders and return the stallions to the desperate merchants.

“These are no ordinary bandits,” the envoys had warned. And they were right. Within a couple of hours the thieves’ tracks had all but disappeared.

“Forty horses don’t just vanish into thin air.” Lief studied the dirt. “My guess is they had someone with magic casting alongside them. It’s the only explanation.”

I nudged my mare forward. “Do you think it’s the rebels?”

The lead mage shook his head vigorously. “The rebels don’t bother this far north.”

“Why not?” Ray was just as curious as me.

“All the Crown’s Army reports state attacks south of the capital.” Lief didn’t seem concerned. “There hasn’t been so much as a whiff near the border.”

I frowned. It was true the Red Desert had the salt flats in the south, one of the nation’s most profitable exports, but what about the armory in Ferren and the horse breeders in the townships up north? We traded with those too, did we not?

Ian noted my expression and drew closer. “The rebels don’t bother us up here. There’s no point. Caltoth does the job for them.”

“Do you think King Horrace is the one financing their efforts?”

His eyes stayed focused on the woods around us. “Perhaps.”

Next to me Paige scoffed. “If it were that easy all we’d need to do is round up one and beat the fool ‘til he sings. End the war with Caltoth and those sorry rebels in one easy strike of the fist.”

Ian’s eyes flashed under the bright rays of the afternoon sun. “That’s a bit—”

“What? Cruel? Well they shouldn’t have turned traitors. My brother died serving in Port Cyri because of a rebel attack!”

Lief cleared his throat and took over for Ian. “No one is defending those rebels, Paige. But I can tell you that this isn’t them. They stick south. We get thefts up north all the time because of the border raids. When their livelihood is destroyed, they turn to crime. It’s not right, but it happens.”

“With magic? An impoverished family wouldn’t have mages with them.” Bless Paige’s skeptical heart, she wasn’t ready to back down just yet. I hid a grin. I had to admire her resolve: she did not let anyone’s explanation stand in the way of facts. Even when that person was scowling directly into her face.

Ray snickered beside me as Lief let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes, Paige, ‘with magic.’ There are plenty of people who apply to the Academy who aren’t granted an apprenticeship but would still have enough magic to cast a simple enchantment like this. Hiding tracks and broken foliage isn’t exactly an expertise.”

My knight had the decency to duck her head. “Oh.”

“Oh indeed.” Lief gave her what I was sure was a tired smile. “It’s against the law to practice magic unless you are a mage—or a part of the apprenticeship, but the desperate ones don’t exactly play by the rules. I’m sure most follow the Code of Conduct where you grew up?”

“They did.” Paige’s cheeks were tinged pink. “They were tried with a higher sentence otherwise.”

The young man laughed. “If only that worked around here.”

I watched as my guard and the lead mage carried on into what could only be described as a friendly discourse. Ian, Ray, and I followed behind in an amused silence.

“Is she blushing?”

Ian stared. “I thought your guard hated everyone.”

“Apparently there are exceptions.”

“Exceptions with shining blond locks and long, long lashes,” Ray chortled.

Ian grinned at me. “Apparently Paige and Ray are harboring amorous feelings for Lief. What about you, Ry? Are you pining after our lead mage as well?”

“Certainly. What with those long, long lashes.” I winked at Ray. “How could I not?”

Ian opened his mouth to say something in reply, but it was lost on me as I caught wind of two knights’ conversation behind us:

“…Future princess can’t even take her mage duties seriously, too busy flirting with the others.”

My good humor was lost in a second.

“I heard she only got offered the position because Nyx suspected her relationship with Prince Darren would be beneficial to the keep.”

“Was it that obvious?”

“After the attack in Ferren? Everyone knew. He was in and out of the infirmary every day she was recovering… Can you imagine what she must have done to convince him to leave Lady Priscilla? She certainly wasn’t practicing Combat, if you catch my meaning.”

“I heard about that. I was in Tijan. So you truly think she’s here because…?”

“Why else? From what I’ve seen she’s nothing special.”

I didn’t even realize how tightly I was gripping the reins until the conversation died off and the second knight cleared her throat.

“Mage Ryiah, is something wrong?”

The false worry was like burnt sugar to the taste. My grip on the reins was so tight my knuckles were white. I could barely feel my fingers. I was sorely tempted to turn around in the saddle and tell the knight exactly what I thought of her “concern.”

“What’s wrong?” How about you daring to pretend you know anything about me! Nyx offered me the position because of my performance saving soldiers from a Caltothian attack! Why did she offer you yours? Because of your talent for tasteless gossip?

A slender arm slid into my field of vision and pried my hands from the reins, releasing the tension so that my mare was able to start forward once again.

“Ryiah.” Ruth was leaning close to my face. I hadn’t exchanged so much as a word with the Alchemy mage since I’d arrived—mostly because I had been too distracted to remember. “Come on, let’s catch up to the rest of your group.”

“Did you hear?” My voice cracked as she led me away from the knights, back to the center of our formation where the rest of the Combat mages and Paige rode.

The girl nodded once and I flushed.

For the past couple of days I had noticed conversations ending rather abruptly when I approached, but I had never thought twice about it until now. Was the entire squad talking about me?

Was that what this was?

“They don’t know you, Ryiah.” Ruth’s discerning gaze was sympathetic. “All they can do is speculate.”

“Do you think I was offered this post because of his feelings for me?” I didn’t need to say whom. Ruth had watched Darren’s and my relationship play out from a distance the entire apprenticeship.

“No.” The girl hesitated. “But there are people who will always believe that no matter what you tell them.”

“Are there…” I swallowed back my anger. “Are there a lot of them?”

Ruth didn’t say anything.

Great. I felt anger fighting its way back to the surface. My entire squad thought I had received my rank and position because of my betrothal to the prince. My comrades gave me compliments to my face and speculated on my skill the second my back was turned.

Five years of proving myself. Gone. In an instant.

No wonder Darren had been so cold that first day at the Academy when Ella and I had questioned his place as a student. Doubtless, he had experienced what I was feeling now thousands of times. As a prince he probably got tired of proving himself again and again. Darren’s angry retort that morning had been a culmination of years of false flattery and cruel speculation.

“You will thank me one day for not filling your head with false compliments.” Darren had been doing me a favor after all. If only I had realized it then instead of years after the fact. What I had thought was mocking irony was in truth the advice of an angry young prince who had been tirelessly lied to and talked about whenever he left a room. His entire life.

“Thanks,” I told Ruth aloud, “for stopping me before I said something I’d regret.” Although in truth I wasn’t so sure. Those two knights deserved a piece or two of my mind.

Ruth patted my shoulder awkwardly, unaware of my internal conflict. “It’ll get better, Ry, you’ll see.” She never was one for warm, friendly gestures. “And if it doesn’t, well, you are only with us for a year before you have to return to the capital, isn’t that right?”

That was a bleak prospect. I gave her a weak smile, and Ruth returned to her group of Alchemy mages as I followed behind Ian and Ray, lost in my own self-pity and fury.

****

“Ryiah. Ian. You two are going to go south with Jeffrey’s band. Ray and I will head north with Sir Gavin’s.”

I tried not to let my disappointment show when we reached a fork in the road and Gavin had Lief split us up into two separate parties. Though the bandits’ tracks had been missing for the first two days everyone suspected they had taken the stream north after the general resurgence of prints leading to the south.

As Lief put, “No one spends that much effort trying to hide their presence to suddenly stop trying.” The thieves had clearly run out of magic and taken the stream to hide their route—leaving an abundance of evidence south to lead their pursuers astray. Still, Sir Gavin had to send some of us to investigate both options, and it was no surprise I got assigned to the group least likely to encounter the enemy.

The conversation between the two knights came echoing back: “From what I’ve seen she’s nothing special.” As I parted ways with Ray and Lief I had to keep from lobbing my apple’s core at the lead mage’s back. Do you think I’m nothing special too? I wanted to scream, I am more than capable of handling a couple bandits on my own!

But of course I couldn’t say any of that. Because any fit of temper would confirm the skeptics’ assumption that I was only here because of my relationship to the prince. Because a true war mage would never complain over their duty, no matter how menial or insignificant it might seem.

“You are unusually quiet.” Paige sidled next to me on her mare after two hours of silence. “Is something bothering you, my lady?”

I clenched my teeth. Self-pity would not get me anywhere. “Nothing is bothering me.” I studied the forest in front of us and the moss-covered granite scattered throughout—it would have been beautiful if I hadn’t been so distraught. “Do you really think the bandits would be this obvious?” I was referring to the droppings peeking out between dense patches of grass and ivy.

The knight bit her lip, understanding my real reason for asking. “No, my lady.”

“I didn’t think so.”

Next to me Ian didn’t say a word. I wondered if he was upset to be assigned with the fifty of us clearly headed in the wrong direction. The weaklings. It had to be an insult for Ray to be given the premium assignment even though Ian was a year older and more experienced. Chancing a quick glimpse I saw the boy’s face was a mask.

Since when was that boy unreadable?

We wove in and out of the thick-trunked pines dotted in fuzzy growth, following the obvious indentations of crushed foliage for nearly three hours before the prints finally turned around and backtracked the path they had taken through a nearby hedge.

“Well, isn’t this a surprise,” a soldier grumbled.

I dismounted and Paige followed by habit. The sun had turned a hazy amber peaking out beneath the trees, illuminating our stop with shades of crimson and violet. It wouldn’t be much longer before it was time to set up camp. Some of the knights nearby were debating whether to turn around now to try and catch up to Sir Gavin’s group to the north, or rest for the night. Knowing how sinister the terrain could turn without the sun’s rays to guide us, I was in favor of the latter.

“Mages, would you mind collecting the firewood?”

Now that we were down to fifty, the soldiers needed help with the tasks a hundred usually accomplished without the mages’ and knights’ aid. I didn’t mind. It gave me something to do, and I needed a distraction. I grabbed one of the soldier’s empty sacks and Ian and Paige followed suit, the three of us scouting the west side of the trail while Alchemy and Restoration took the east.

“Everything is wet,” Paige complained after ten minutes of fruitless searching. “It’s so shaded here the dew stays on everything. Nothing is dry, look…” She snagged a branch in passing and attempted to split it—revealing a fresh-looking center that did not want to break. “I hope the others are having better luck.”

“There’s some light over there.” Ian pointed to some brush in the distance that looked more aged than the rest of the forest. “Come on.”

The two of us trudged after him, pushing past an assault of dense bramble to reach it. By the time we emerged on the other side I had small red lines all across my arms.

They itched like crazy.

Lovely, just lovely. I scratched my bare skin and made a face at nothing in particular. Service in Ferren’s Keep Regiment was nothing like what I imagined. After an action-packed apprenticeship I had expected danger; so far this forest plant was the closest enemy I had encountered.

I kicked out at the nearest shrub with a vengeance and then swore as my foot collided against a large rock beneath.

“Ryiah?”

I looked up to catch Ian watching me with a cautious expression. A couple feet away Paige was pointedly ignoring us both, breaking off branches one at a time.

I made my face blank as I held the sack open for my guard. “It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?” Ian stopped what he was doing. “You’ve been acting as though something has been bothering you all day.”

Why deny it? He already knew something was wrong. “The others were talking about me.”

Silence.

I picked up a piece of wood from the ground and yelped as my finger caught on its splintered bark. I yanked my hand away and plucked the infinitely small shard from my skin, watching as a small bead of red settled onto the surface. “Everyone thinks Nyx only offered me the position here because of my new status,” I added.

Ian didn’t look surprised. “I heard.”

Thanks for sticking up for me. “Why didn’t you correct them?” I swallowed and forced myself to ask the question I’d been secretly wondering since I arrived. “Are we… are you mad at me?”

“Ryiah.” Ian folded his arms across his chest. “This has nothing to do with our past. Me saying something wouldn’t change the facts. You are a lowborn who received second-rank status on the same night the prince told his father he was to marry you instead.” The boy took the now-brimming sack from my hands and set his own empty one in its place. “What is everyone supposed to think?”

“Darren didn’t ask Byron to do that.” I felt frustration working its way to the surface and swallowed hard, forcing the anger back. “I earned my rank, Ian, you know that!”

“Yes,” the boy said with a sigh, “and how convenient it was that Master Byron decided to have a change of heart the year of your ascension.”

“It’s not my fault Marius finally talked some sense into the old man!” I felt as if I had taken a punch to the gut. This was Ian. Ian. My former friend, or so I had thought. Maybe he was still mad. Maybe he hadn’t forgiven me after all.

“Why am I being punished for impressing the Black Mage? Why am I being put down for catching Nyx’s eye after I saved her regiment? Why does my new status have to mean anything here? I have proven myself time and time again!”

“You can’t just pick and choose when to play the victim, Ry.” Ian stopped ducking his head to look at me, really look at me. “Yes, people are going to speculate. That’s what they do. But forgive me for saying you received plenty of privileges from your friendship with the prince, too. Or did you already forget how Darren got you a spot on that mission in Port Langli? Or how about the time you woke up our entire camp to yell at him—and were it anyone else Byron would have sent you packing in a minute?” He exhaled slowly. “And do you think the Black Mage would have been quite so eager to point out Byron’s obvious bias unless Darren had drawn attention to it?”

“Ian, I…” My cheeks were in flames. I had received privileges. And here Ian was reminding me how silly I looked complaining over the prospect of one disadvantage when he would have killed to have any one of those. The boy whose heart I had trampled for another. “I’m sorry, I… I didn’t realize—”

The young man held up his hand quickly to show me it wasn’t what I thought. “I know you deserve your rank, Ry, but...” He swallowed loudly. “But the others are going to need a bit more convincing. And in the meantime don’t bite their heads off for talking. Because their beliefs aren’t entirely unfounded.”

I wiped a strand of sticky hair back from my forehead. “Well, now I feel just terrible.”

“As you should.”

I opened my mouth and shut it as I caught his smile.

“I’m kidding, Ryiah.”

I gave an embarrassed shrug. “I guess I’ve forgotten your humor. This has to be the longest conversation the two of us have had in years.”

The boy chuckled. “It is a bit awkward, isn’t it?”

“It was awkward for me.” Paige's voice cut through my delayed response. I gave the knight a half-hearted glare. She was never very subtle.

“So…” Ian said.

“So.”

“You and Darren.”

“Oh…” I paused. “That.”

The boy cleared his throat uncomfortably. “The non-heir turned out to be full of good intentions in the end. I can’t say I saw that coming.”

I shifted my feet guiltily. “I did… and then I didn’t. He’s…” I didn’t know how to say it without making the conversation worse. “He’s complicated.”

“You could say that.”

I cringed and hastened to explain. “But he wants to do the right thing. He doesn’t always do it the right way, but he has good intentions.” I cringed at the use of the same phrase as Ian. It made Darren sound so… complicated. Complicated? I had already used that word too. I was floundering here.

“I think you will be good for him.”

My gaze shot up to meet Ian’s. “T-thank you?”

“I’m not just saying that to be nice.” The mage’s eyes bore into mine. “You didn’t grow up at the palace and spend your days wasting away in a convent. You will be able to advocate for others, affect policy…”

I laughed nervously. “You obviously have not spent much time with the royal family.” King Lucius couldn’t even stand to be in the same room as me, and I wasn’t so sure his eldest didn’t want me dead, despite whatever his brother claimed.

“Ryiah.” Ian shut his eyes. “You convinced Darren to marry you. You have influence whether you want to believe it or not.”

“He’s not the heir. He can’t—”

“Won’t you at least try?” My friend’s voice became increasingly strained. “Or does the lowborns’ cause no longer concern you now that you are not one of us?”

That hurt. Ian knew full well that neither of us had been “lowborn” since our apprenticeship. “O-of course it does!”

There must have been something in my voice because Ian immediately looked guilty. “I’m sorry, Ry, I didn’t mean—I know you are a good person. I just don’t want this new life of yours to change you.”

“It won’t.” I made myself smile as I reached out to touch his arm. “Believe me, it would take a lot more than pretty dresses—” A foul odor rose up and I wrinkled my nose, peering down at my boots. Horse droppings. I had managed to step into a mound of them, half-hidden by the dense forest floor. “Great, just…” I froze.

Droppings. Fresh—only a couple days old. Ten minutes past the brush where the bandits had supposedly turned around.

I glanced up sharply and took a quick examination of the surroundings, trying to locate any trampled foliage that had not come from Paige, Ian’s, or my tracks.

There. I squinted. There. My eyes locked on some crushed ivy: and there. The bandits had come this way!

I drew a baited breath. “Lord Waldyn’s envoys said their regiment couldn’t find the bandits after two full days’ search. But didn’t their report state they went north, like Sir Gavin’s group? Everyone thought the tracks leading south were too obvious. What if they weren’t? What if it was a ploy?” I pointed to the mound at my feet.

Ian whistled. “The bandits wanted us to assume they took the stream.”

I felt my excitement building. “It’s why the southern trail looked so trampled. Because it was! They didn’t just send a couple men to give it that appearance and turn around at our camp—they kept going: here!”

I was practically dancing in place. Finally. Something to show the others I was more than the girl the prince favored. “If the bandits had circled back they wouldn’t have had reason to create false tracks this far south. My guess is they missed this or ran out of magic and figured they were too far south for us to search.”

Paige groaned. “You mages make everything so complicated.”

Ian gave the knight a victorious grin and hauled both wood sacks onto his back. “Things would be too easy otherwise, my dear.”

The guard scowled and snatched back her sack. “I am nobody’s ‘dear.’”

I waved us forward. “Come on, let’s go see where these tracks lead…”

“Oh, no, you don’t.” Paige grabbed Ian’s and my wrists and yanked us back with a heavy tug. “You two will report back to the rest of your camp and let them decide whether to pursue the search now or in the morning. You know Sir Gavin will have my head if I let the both of you recklessly wander off to hunt the bandits on your own.”

I made a face. We were already three days behind the bandits’ progress. “It’s not reckless. Lief said we could go in pairs and we’d only be scouting—”

“But Sir Gavin said you mages shouldn’t be doing anything the soldiers can handle on their own.”

“They sent us for firewood,” Ian offered. “We are short-handed, we’d be doing the rest of them a favor.”

“I am sure your leader will have a different priority for tracking criminals.”

The two of us gave loud sighs as we followed Paige back to camp. She was right, of course, but I was itching to prove myself to the rest of our party. I chanced a glance at Ian and his expression mirrored my own.

“Feels like the old times, doesn’t it, Ry?”

I smiled. Not yet. But I expected it was about to.

****

In the end our party voted to search the forest that morning. We were already three days behind the bandits’ progress, and it would be foolhardy to try and ascertain their location at night when we could barely see two feet in front of us. Torches would give away our location, and the mages weren’t about to use up magic tracking when we would need it for our inevitable encounter later on.

I spent a restless night tossing and turning. It was a warm summer night—cold in the shade of the forest, but still heated enough by fire to spend it under the stars instead of a tented canvas. Next to me I could hear Paige doing the same. She put on a brave act, but I suspected she was nervous for her first test of duty. When we went to battle, she would be undoubtedly glued to my side.

The entire camp was packed up and ready to go by the first morning’s light. Ian, Paige and I were no exception. Every one of us was restless and ready for battle. Sixteen days of camping in the wilderness, and without the repetitive training routine of the Academy, I was itching to use my magic.

Five straight years of routine were hard to break. Here in the regiment we were expected to conserve our magic while on duty—one could never know when we could be forced to engage—and with the added pressure of my squad’s disapproval I was ready to show it.

Luckily for us, the bandits’ trail was easy to pick up with the discovery of the horse droppings the night before. The criminals clearly hadn’t expected us to investigate this far south, so they hadn’t bothered to hide the rest of their tracks. Everything was still a little wet with the morning dew, but by midday we had left the cool cover of the denser part of the forest for the sparser terrain deep in the mountains.

Summer heat beat down like the gods’ pounding fists. In no time at all I was drenched in sweat and grime and my clothes were sticking to my skin. I was definitely happy Darren wasn’t there to witness his betrothed’s repugnant stench. Let alone the way the undershirt beneath my chainmail had turned brown and wet in the most revolting of ways.

Hours dragged by and the ground we passed became coarse. Jagged granite lined the narrow trail up and down into the heart of the northern range. Our stops became more frequent as even the horses grew weary.

It was late into the afternoon when two scouts finally returned bearing the news all of us had been anxiously anticipating: the horses and the bandits’ base camp were just three more miles southwest of our current location. Apparently they had a small camp set up along the base of three nearby mountains. The heart of the Iron Range. Also desolate. A territory previously ignored by the regiment whose patrols had focused along the border and northernmost townships.

Which was probably the reason the outlaws had chosen it. And from the report the scouts had given, it had been in use for a year at the least. The horses were only a recent addition. There was livestock as well. Two cows and a small bay of pigs were stationed in pens at the edge of a roughly made fort. Several chickens clucking away in a wooden fixture nearby. Even several thin rows of mountain-hardy crops: red lettuce and stubby carrot heads.

The bandits’ set up was far too permanent to be just a camp.

Paige scowled at the end of the scouts’ report. “They must have been living there awhile.”

“Explains the recent influx in thefts,” a soldier nearby added. “All this time we thought the incidents were Caltoth. Never would have suspected it was on our side of the border.”

“How many?”

“Thirty,” was the scouts’ reply.

“Only thirty? Why do they need forty horses?”

“Gods, Karl,” someone drawled, “they are thoroughbreds. The bandits were probably going to sell them to the Caltothians, not ride them.”

The head knight Killian cleared his throat above the soldiers’ discourse. “The scouts may have counted thirty, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more nearby. I doubt they expect us, but we can’t be too careful. Ryder, I want you and half your band to take the camp with me. Avery, you are going to take the others and flank the outskirts in case there are others our scouts missed.” He continued to list the names for each squad.

“What about Combat?”

“Ian, you are with Ryder’s party. Ryiah—Avery.”

My face fell. Not because I didn’t admire Avery’s conduct—she was a skilled knight, from what I had seen during the morning drills. It was that once again I was forced to join the action-less party.

Ian caught my eye and shook his head slowly. I bit my lip and took a deep breath. He knew exactly what I was thinking. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe our leader chose Ian for his seniority.

“Great, I’m stuck with her. If we run into trouble you had better hope we don’t need a mage who can actually fight.”

I tasted the copper tang of blood, and realized I had bit too deep in an effort to keep my comeback to myself.

Paige pulled up beside me. “Let’s go, my lady,” she said quietly.

I followed her back to where Avery and the rest of our group were gathering. My knight might not be my biggest fan, but she wasn’t heartless. Silently, I thanked her for dragging me away before I said something I’d regret.

Adjusting my reins I listened to Avery detail our strategy.

We would be taking a slightly different route into the valley while Ian and Ryder’s group took the main one. An Alchemy mage in each party had two potions on hand to give off a bright flare: red once the mission was complete, blue if they ran into trouble and needed backup. It wasn’t as effective as lightning but it would serve our purpose given the close proximity while helping keep Ian’s and my magic in reserve.

Assuming everything went to plan.

****

This time I was not going to be reckless—by word or by deed. It was a vow I had sworn my first night of service, and one I intended to keep. One that I was repeating over and over as I inched along in line with the twenty-five others of Knight Avery’s lead. We skirted along a narrow trail of pine and stone, squeezing uncomfortably between the walls of two towering crags while the clip-clop of the horses hooves echoed our progress. The path got to be so tight that only one could pass at a time, and it took us the good part of an hour just to pass the worst of it.

I was beginning to wonder how the other party was faring when there was a heavy rumbling and then an earth-shattering thud. The ground quaked. My horse whinnied, then reared, and I just barely held on as the air filled with panicked cries behind me.

In the seconds that followed, I managed to calm my mare just long enough to dismount as Paige did the same. The two of us had enough sense not to stay mounted during an attack in such limited quarters.

I turned, one hand raised for casting as the other slid my sword from its hilt. Then I gasped. I heard the knights and soldiers behind me do the same.

An enormous boulder easily fifteen feet tall and as wide as the gap had fallen not five feet behind us, cutting us off from the rest of our group and the trail we had taken. There was the loud clash of metal on metal and shouting coming from the other side. I couldn’t see—the obstacle was far too high—but I had ears. It didn’t take much to ascertain that the scouts’ count had been wrong.

The bandits and the rest of our men were on the other side.

And from the sound of it, ours were losing. They had the Alchemy flasks but were undoubtedly too occupied to use them. And even if they weren’t, our location was shielded by two rocky walls with no end in sight. I doubted the others would be able to see us, let alone get here in time.

The fifteen of us listened to the fighting in a panic. Paige bellowed a string of curses and several soldiers were trying uselessly to move the boulder standing between us and the rest of our party.

I looked up instead and saw the tall ledge where the bandits had got the drop on us. It was high enough that no one had ever bothered to watch the ledge.

We were fools. The bandits had probably had a rotation of sentries posted at this entrance of the valley hiding, waiting for just this sort of opportunity. Bandits who built that sort of permanent camp undoubtedly employed various techniques to protect it: starting with the giant boulder that was keeping us out as they massacred the rest of our men.

“Ryiah, do something!”

I turned and saw Avery watching me with desperate blue eyes. The knight was frantic and the expressions of the soldiers and knights nearest were equally disturbed. Or helpless.

“We need you to stop them,” she whispered.

“I…” My pulse was racing. Here was my opportunity to prove myself and I had nothing. The rock was too heavy to lift, too dense to cast through, too smooth with no holds to climb. I could levitate but it wouldn’t help much—the others needed reinforcements, not one girl floating and trying to balance her casting at the same time. “Should I cast lightning to warn the others? Maybe Killian—”

“He’ll come too late.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be powerful?” a man sneered. “You are a second-rank mage, aren’t you? Save them!”

“I don’t know what I can—”

“They are dying, princess!” another snapped.

“I’m not a—”

Use your magic!”

“I don’t know what to do.” My voice quavered as I stared down fifteen sets of angry stares. Worse, I could hear the screams from across the way, echoing along the mountain passage. Bloodcurdling cries and shrieks. They are dying because you can’t think of a way to save them.

“You are useless!” The same man who called me “princess” spat on me.

“That’s enough!” Paige stepped in front of me to glare at the soldier. “She isn’t useless, and your shouting isn’t going to help her any so why don’t you shut your big, ugly mouth before I am forced to do it for you!”

I swallowed. She was wrong. I was useless. This wasn’t about my pride. I couldn’t care less what that soldier or any of his friends thought of me. I was a fool to wish for conflict. The gods had done this on purpose to punish me. Silly girl wishes for battle to impress the others and this is what she gets. Stuck, useless, listening as innocents are slaughtered just a few paces away.

All my years of training had never prepared me for this.

I was helpless.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know anything.

My whole body was erupting in shakes and anxiety was seizing my veins. Think, Ryiah. I fought against the fear that was building, praying to the gods that my knees didn’t give out in the face of my panic. I have to do something.

My audience’s faces danced in and out of my sight, blurring and clearing as I held still. I couldn’t do this now. I needed to be strong. I needed to think of something. Not to impress the others but to save them.

“My lady,” Paige said softly, “you can’t save everyone.”

She was right. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. I breathed in and out through my nose, ten times. Then I squared my shoulders. “Everyone away from the boulder now!”

Three soldiers that had been trying to climb scattered and the rest backed away from the rock. I strode forward and placed my palms directly against the rock. Normally I wouldn’t need to touch something to cast, but the amount of magic I was about to attempt would require every advantage available.

Let’s hope I haven’t reached my potential yet…

Clenching my eyes shut I called upon my magic slowly, piece by piece like kindling to a flame. I built up the projection in my mind, fanning the image until it was as real as the object pressed against my hands. I envisioned the casting I wanted to create, taking extra care to make sure my magic was equally projected along the five points in my mind.

Then I took a step back and threw my energy into the cold, gravelly surface for all I was worth.

The boulder started to… quiver? It was emitting just the slightest tremor, and I could hear the murmur of voices behind me. I dug my heels into the ground and forced my mind into a blank slate, wiping out the commotion of noises and smells and the beads of sweat condensing along my brow line. I ignored everything but my magic and strained against the headache that was building and building…

My legs started to tremble, blood pounded against my temples, a rush of hot and cold swamped my skin… but I kept focus and clenched my jaw, forcing my magic to stay with me even as I was ready to fall.

Someone gripped me by my armpits and held as my body set into convulsive shakes. “It’s working,” Paige whispered.

I peeked out beneath my lashes, and I fought to stay calm. I had never even remotely attempted something this heavy during my apprenticeship. Darren had, but even he had his limits. The rock was close to four tons—and the most I had ever lifted was two. Still… the boulder was hovering—albeit very shakily—a couple inches above the ground.

By the gods!

Behind me I could vaguely hear Avery giving orders for the others to take off their extra mail and plates. I swallowed. They needed at least a foot and a half—not two—to fit through the small crawl space.

“Paige,” I croaked. “Your knife.”

My knight wasted no time in placing the weapon into my shaking fist. I pressed the sharp edge into the palm of my hand. Lightly. Feather-soft at first, careful not to exert too much pressure and collapse the casting I had worked so hard to control.

The rock jolted for just a moment. It jumped another inch, and then three, before settling back a couple inches above the ground.

Ignoring the gasps behind me I let Paige take on the brunt of my weight as I dug the blade deeper and deeper—until blood was dripping down my wrist and the pain of metal against bone and muscle was almost too much to bear.

I opened my eyes again and saw the boulder was hovering two feet above the ground. Everyone was crawling as fast as they could to reach the other side.

A flare of white slammed against my eyes and everything became muted… Past experience taught me I had only seconds before my magic would end.

I stuck out the casting for as long as I could, gritting my teeth and willing it to stay, praying the others had finished making it across. The slight tremors in my legs and arms became sporadic jerks, and Paige struggled to hold on as I lost control of my limbs. I couldn’t stop my body’s response to the magic much longer...

No. I had to hold on. You can do this, Ryiah. I braced myself against the darkness for as long as—

Paige’s awed voice broke the silence: “They made it, my lady, you can let go now.”

And so I did.

Previous: Chapter Two
Next: Chapter Four