A continuation. Part I here.
Practiced discipline had me out of bed and upright an instant after waking to my name. I wasn’t exactly awake, but I was standing at attention. Blearily I saw Rusk turn over, still sleeping.
The shout from outside came again, bringing me to lucidity. I ducked out, leaving Rusk. His body was hanging on to the chance at rest for as long as it could, and I wasn’t going to be the one to stop it.
“You’re wanted in the pavilion.” He glanced behind me at the tent. “Caerwyn—”
“—is not to be bothered.” I gave him a look that made him duck his head and sidle away. Swearing under my breath at whoever invented mornings, I headed back towards the center of camp.
General Tormund was at the center of a knot of people gathered by his pavilion. I made my way through, none too concerned with whose feet I stepped on.
He frowned at me. “Where’s Caerwyn?”
“Still mending. What’s happened?”
“A couple of our scouts just returned with word that a party from the south rode into the Beldane encampment last night. They’ve brought in their own mage.”
I stared at him, feeling as though I’d been struck in the face.
He must have realized my shock, because he gave me a grim nod before he continued. “The scouts report seeing a young girl arrive with an escort. She became agitated at several points and started throwing off sparks. It seems likely she is inexperienced and uncontrolled. Nonetheless, I have no intent to let them use her against us to any extent.”
My ears were ringing. I knew of perhaps three living fire mages – the gift had only awakened a few centuries before, and since then it had cropped up unpredictably across our kingdom, with no pattern of heredity. And the fire magic was ours, given to the people of Valder. Whoever the Beldane mage was, she surely had our blood in her somewhere.
Over my spinning thoughts, I managed to ask, “What do you plan to do about her?”
“I’m sending you and Caerwyn to retrieve her.”
This was almost as great a blow as the first revelation. “General – they’ll be guarding her like she’s made of gold.”
“The scouts say she’s being kept isolated at the northwest perimeter of their camp. Little wonder, if she can’t contain her magic.”
He was right. I thought of the way Rusk’s bad dreams sometimes brought smoke curling from his clenched hands. The devastation of a night terror for an untrained mage housed amidst a cluster of very flammable tents…
“Eight or nine hours’ sleep isn’t enough to bring Caerwyn back to capacity,” I said, dispelling the image. “He could go tomorrow.”
“By tomorrow there may well be an attack underway. You’ll go today, while the Beldane are still working out how to handle the girl. I don’t need Caerwyn to fight. He’s the only one of us who can’t be burned.”
Besides that, I realized, it would probably be best for the younger mage to be approached by someone who shared the gift. I shut my eyes for an instant to collect myself, then opened them again to find the general watching me keenly. “I’ll get Caerwyn,” I told him. Reluctant as I was to disturb Rusk, this was a matter that warranted it.
It took some doing, but I managed to wake my charge to a degree that facilitated comprehension of what I was telling him – at which point he completed the rest of the waking process himself, his expression registering the same earth-shaken shock I’d felt at the news.
“And what is it we’re to do with her?” he asked as I strapped on my bow and quiver.
“We’re bringing her back here. Come on, up you get. I wish this could wait, but we’re to go now.”
Booted and equipped, we both made for the pavilion. Rusk was definitely stronger for his night’s sleep, but he wouldn’t be any use in a fight. Better to avoid any confrontation altogether, if we could. General Tormund showed us the updated map of the Beldane position, marking the girl’s approximate location as well as the places our scouts had spotted theirs. “You’ll ride to here,” he said, pointing, “then leave the horses there and continue on foot to where they’re keeping the girl. Once you have her, you’ll follow the same route back. You’ve both trained for stealth work – I trust you’ll be competent enough to manage this. Fight only if it’s necessary to keep someone quiet.”
The horses were ready for us when he’d finished. We climbed up and rode out of camp at a trot, Rusk’s mount a little uneasy under him. Animals always seemed to recognize a mage as something odd and dubious.
Day had truly broken by now. We were as discreet as we could be at such short notice; our clothes were drab under their coatings of of mud and ash, and I’d left my armor behind to avoid the weight and jangle. As we rode, I returned to thoughts of the Beldane mage. A young girl brought to the battlefield from who-knows-where, with no training and likely very little understanding of her own abilities. Beldane had no study of magecraft, since they had not been given the gift. The commander of their army would have even less grasp of a mage’s limitations than General Tormund had.
The girl would be terrified. I couldn’t imagine waking one day to discover that something in my veins had stirred and altered me without warning or explanation. More than that, waking to discover that I’d been made into something no longer quite human, and that I somehow contained a destructive force that I’d never asked for. I glanced at Rusk, trying to see him as he would have been two years ago, when his gift manifested. He was fifteen then, and noble, and the talk was that his family had essentially disowned him to keep their house from association with magic. He still bore their name, even if he’d been consigned to be the army’s own walking flint-and-steel.
We reached the rocky outcrop where we were to leave the horses. The scattered trees we’d been riding past now stood nearer to one another, thick enough to offer us some cover for our walk. We both knew roughly the circuitous route we would need to follow to avoid the Beldane watchers, but it would be a slow, careful progress nonetheless. I unslung my bow and made sure my quiver was in place for quickest reach. Then, after exchanging nods, we continued on.
Luck or providence went with us, for we came into sight of only one set of Beldane soldiers, and they didn’t see us. They were moving on a path which curved away from ours. Only when they had been out of sight for the space of several silent breaths did I lower my bow and relax the drawn string. I kept the arrow nocked, though – we were nearing the camp.
To be concluded in my next post.