The pain was back. It fingered its way around her head, starting at the base of her skull and creeping across her forehead to meet in the centre. Now it was complete, encircling, and burrowing deeper and deeper, splitting her skull in two.
Karayana moaned softly and managed to turn onto her side. After the initial shock of the movement, the pain actually subsided slightly.
Sleep. She needed to sleep.
No. Where was she? She had to think. Try to clear a space in the fog of her brain. What had happened?
Sleep now, think later. Ah yes, that sounded good.
“How is she?”
“Asleep, just about. You hit her hard.”
The girl shrugged. “It was dark. I didn’t want to miss. Did you find out what’s going on upstairs?”
“Yes. It seems they think she has run away again. So for now, we are safe.”
The man stood and vacated the only chair.
“Where are you going now?” she asked suspiciously.
“To collect the other one.”
“I don’t see why we need both of them,” she said, edging her tone with contempt.
“Just obeying orders.”
“What shall I do if she wakes?”
“Hopefully she won’t. If you can keep her under, all the better, but be careful, Mica. She is strong and fairly undisciplined. At the moment she seems to be unaware of her potential. Let’s keep it that way.”
She shrugged, non-committal, and took his seat, watching him walk softly away into the darkness. There was a slight wince as he started up the stone steps. She noted the weakness. You never know, one day she might need to use it.
Loemo marched after Briyden, trying his best to stifle a yawn. He had never been out of bed this early before, and despite Briyden’s assertions that they were needed at their post, he was sure his mother was going to scold him severely when he returned. The dawn chorus had just begun as the two boys scrambled up onto their lookout rock and viewed the plateau below.
“Can’t see much,” Loemo whispered, staring into the dim light.
“The sun will be up soon. Stay quiet, just in case,” Briyden ordered.
Loemo gave a small shudder, partly because of the chill air, but mostly because of the ‘just in case’.
“Wonder what Marti’s doin’” he whispered down to Briyden, who was sharpening his sword on the edge of the rock.
“Probably looking for my sister.”
“Why’s he on his own?” Loemo asked, puzzled.
Briyden dropped his sword and scrambled up the rock, intrigued.
“Won’t be a mo,” he whispered. He jumped back down from the rock and ran doubled over, to the other side of the hill. There he climbed another rock and peered down towards the palace.
Nobody was around. Where was the rest of Marti’s patrol?
Briyden hurried back across to the lookout rock.
“Where’s he gone?”
“Down the forest path.”
Briyden pulled a small notebook and pencil out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?” Loemo asked.
“Writing down times and things,” Briyden answered, importantly. “You never know when something might be important.”
Karayana knew she was dreaming. Her head throbbed dully. The pain ran through all her wildly lucid visions, a constant. The pain was reality. She strained towards that reality, to feel the pain, but the thought made her shrink away again. Pain was more frightening than dreams, stay away from the pain, and slip away to dreamland. Amusement.
She grabbed towards the thought that was not her own. It was completely alien to her. Confusion made her start to think. Karayana fumbled back towards the painful throbbing. She had to wake up.
But that would hurt, sleep would be better, would help the healing.
No. This wasn’t like her. She didn’t give up. Fight.
Thread by thread, Karayana clawed her way back to consciousness, groaning as the full intensity of pain hit her. She tried to move her body. It was stiff and so cold. Her tongue needed prising away from the roof of her dry mouth. An uncontrollable shivering took over and she spent a long time trying to think of all the things she had been taught about keeping warm. Her teacher, Ral, had shown her methods that she could use, but she hadn’t expected to be using them when her body was in this state. She felt herself drifting off into warm images of sitting on a hillside in bright sunshine, learning….I have to open my eyes!
No, sleep would be easier and warmer.
Where had that come from? She suddenly became aware of a presence in her head that hadn’t been there before. With a start, she understood.
“Get out of my head!” she said, flinging energy at the presence with all her might.
She heard the feeble wobble of her own voice, and forced her eyes open. Wherever she was, it was very dark – or was this just another dream? Digging down to the very depths of strength left to her, she managed to force her body into a sitting position. Immediately, a wave of dizzy nausea encased her, and she began to slip away again. The sudden movement of her body falling jolted her back with a cry.
Breathe Karayana. Be strong.
“Ral?” She sobbed the name, looking around wildly.
But no, her imagination was playing tricks. Find yourself, she admonished silently. Breathe the pain away. The presence had gone and her mind felt lighter. She tried hard to centre herself, blocking out the cold that caught her bones in its icy fingers and seeped deep into the marrow. Step by step, she took herself down to where there was no pain, no cold, just self. Her breathing became steadier, deeper, the shivering giving way. She found the warmth in her belly and stirred it into action, letting it slowly work its way through her veins.
Mica picked herself up off the dirt floor, and brushed off the du,st aggressively. Where the hell did Karayana get power like that in such a weakened state? She had ejected her so forcefully that Mica had fallen from her chair, her mind reeling like a ball tumbling down a hillside. She must have had help.
“Well, you were warned she was strong,” she snarled angrily to herself.
Now what was she to do? There was no way she could seduce her with mind talk any more. But she could go and bash her over the head again. She bent and picked up a sizeable rock and hefted it between her hands.
She jumped, and dropped the rock on her foot.
“By all the …” she stood very still, breathing deeply for a minute, before rounding on the voice.
“My dear. Don’t you recognize me?”
The voice was soft and subtle, drifting in the darkness around her. She gave a small shiver and moved closer to her only lantern.
“Perhaps if I could see you, I would know you,” she muttered, trying to keep the nervousness out of her voice.
“You amuse me, Mica. I have been watching you. You are very good at what you do.”
Mica allowed herself a small smile.
“To a point.” There was no mistaking the slight menace to the voice. “Do not touch her again. You must not damage valuable goods.”
Mica crossed her arms, looking warily around the corridor she was in. She couldn’t see very far, but sight was not the only sense available.
“Where are you?” she whispered.
The chuckle that answered her was chilling.
“I am everywhere you are, my dear. I am your ultimate friend and your ultimate enemy. Take heed, Mica. You must guard Karayana with your life. We need her. There are few left like her anymore.”
Mica stood still, hardly breathing, trying to think of something to say. Before she had chance, she felt the air around her lighten, and she knew he was gone. Her legs suddenly felt weak, and she had to catch herself on the table before lowering herself down into the chair. Sweat beaded her brow, and she wiped it dry with her sleeve. Who was that? Her ultimate friend and ultimate enemy? Mica shuddered.
She wondered what he had meant by “…there are few left like her any more…” She felt a small jolt of jealousy at Karayana’s importance. It was about time someone filled her in on exactly what was going on here. Her order had never shown any interest in Araevian and Ebrocian affairs before. In fact, they had never shown an interest in the affairs of anyone other than themselves. Mica seemed to be risking herself for no apparent reason. When Dorien returned, she would find out what he knew, one way or another.
The call of a screech owl in the tree above his head brought Portheas to his senses with a jump. They had not been stopped long, having ridden well into the night, but as soon as he had dismounted and found a comfy tree to rest his weary back against, sleep had begun to overtake him.
He glanced up at the servant.
“There is some warm food ready by the fire. Your father awaits you there.”
Portheas grimaced, dismissing the servant with a small wave of his hand, and rose stiffly to his feet.
His father sat with his back to him, obviously enjoying a large plate of something, and as he approached the smell of meat caught his taste buds and set his mouth to watering. He hadn’t realized quite how hungry he was.
“Ah, son. Come and eat your fill before bed.”
He sat down on a vacant cushion and took a proffered plate.
A full stomach and a glass of wine later, he could feel sleep tugging at the edges of his awareness again. He fought it, yawning widely and running a hand over his eyes.
His father noticed.
“We mustn’t tire you too much son. You need to be ready for the wedding bed,” Matheas whispered loudly. A few grunts of quiet laughter spread round the fire, and Portheas at once felt angry.
“We don’t even know if the stupid girl will still be there,” he replied sulkily. “And the wedding is not for four months yet. This is a formality only. As far as I’m concerned, we get this over with and get home to a normal life, instead of traipsing through countryside like peasants.”
Word had reached them of Karayana’s homecoming late in the day. They had been at a hunting lodge close to the border of Ebrocia, so as luck would have it, the whole affair should not take up too much of his time.
His father laughed out loud and slapped him on the back.
“Come on. She is rather pretty, even if in a rural way. Your mother will soon show her some manners. And once back at court you only have to see her when needs must!”
Portheas felt his cheeks redden. He got unsteadily to his feet.
“If it wasn’t for the good of our province, I wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole. I’m only doing this for you.” He pointed an accusing finger at the assembled men, before turning his back on the fire and storming off, back to his tree.
His sleeping roll had been neatly arranged for him and he wrapped himself in it, listening to the low voices and occasional loud laughs. He knew they were discussing him, but he just couldn’t get his head clear enough to make any sensible argument back. It was strange, really. He didn’t remember wine ever affecting him so strongly. Perhaps it was the combination of that and the weariness from being in the saddle all day.
His mouth felt dry. Water would be nice, but he couldn’t remember where he had put his saddlebag. His brain felt strangely heavy now, like a great weight was forcing it to sleep and he was powerless to resist. The last thing he remembered was the sound of the screech owl above his head, but this time it faded away into dreams.
Portheas gradually became aware that he wasn’t lying on his bedroll under a forest tree, but on a very hard stone flag. With that realisation, he came to his senses and made to sit up, only to find that his hands were bound behind his back and his feet were held together from ankle to halfway up his calf with thick rope. Wherever he was, there was no light, and he lay still for a moment, trying to work out what had happened. He felt strangely groggy and remembered nothing much of the night before. Wriggling, he managed to get himself into a sitting position. A wall behind him gave him something to lean on while he tried to clear his head. Cursing softly at the pain, he struggled with his bonds, but they were tied well and there was no way he could get them off without a knife or, perhaps a sharp bit of stonewall. He felt carefully along with his fingers and at last found a chipped, jagged edge. Deftly, he swung his legs up beside him and managed to kneel at the right height to reach it with his bound hands. He had only just begun to saw at the rope when he heard a metallic click. A thin line of light appeared behind him, and he realized that someone was opening a door into his cell. Hastily, he sat back down, trying to appear woozy. A man stood framed in the doorway, and behind him Portheas could just make out a rocky chamber with a lamp standing on a small table. He said nothing, but nodded his head, as if pleased the captive were awake, then he turned his attention to the opposite side of the small cell and Portheas realized that he wasn’t alone. A girl lay opposite him and the man frowned as he looked at her. He seemed to consider something for a minute, but then shook his head and walked back out of the door. As he turned to grasp the handle, the lamplight fell across the face of the girl. Although they were smudged with dust, the features were instantly recognizable. Someone had kidnapped both himself and Karayana.
Portheas spent a long time deep in thought. He played through the many political factions in the region, trying to figure out who may have done this and why. Nothing came to him. Puzzled, he thought back to the figure opposite. He wondered if she was hurt. She hadn’t been tied as he was, but she looked very pale under the dirt.
Portheas struggled back to the sharp stone and began to saw again. If he could just free himself, he could check to see if she was all right. After what seemed an eternity, he was no better off and his arms ached from the continued effort. Frustrated, tired and cold, he sat back down.
A small noise brought him around and he realized that he had drifted off. He berated himself soundly and sat up away from the wall. Then he heard the sound again. A small whimper came from the opposite bunk, and the sound of movement.
There was no reply. He considered moving across to her, but he wasn’t sure how well he could shuffle in these bonds. Anger was beginning to seep through him now. There was a scuffle at the door and he sat erect. This time he wanted to confront these people. A small square of light appeared and a hand reached through and placed a large jug on a shelf to one side.
“Hey! You! Come in here and tell me what the hell’s going on,” he demanded.
A female face peered through at him and smiled.
“Who are you?” he growled.
“All in good time,” she said, then shut the little peep hole with a snap. He exhaled deeply and leant back against the cold wall.
The muffled sound of movement came from his companion again.
“Karayana. Are you awake?”
The movement stopped instantly.
“Who are you?” she snarled. He could just make out her silhouette attempting to sit up.
Karayana stilled again. There was a long silence and he began to wonder if she had heard him.
“Hello?” He spoke softly leaning towards her.
“You dared to do this?” Her voice hit him and he flinched back. “You dared to kidnap me?”
The venom in her voice shocked him.
“And when did you stoop to using mind adepts? Did you hope to brainwash me into falling for you? You are unworthy of me, Portheas.”
The disgust in her voice stunned Portheas into silence. Karayana tried to steady her breathing, but his lack of reaction only intensified her rage.
“Won’t you speak up, worm, and deny what you have done?” she goaded the man-shaped shadow that was gradually becoming more visible as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The shadow moved slightly and Karayana tensed, ready for attack. But nothing physical came. Instead, a cold voice hit her.
“I am no worm, woman,” Portheas retaliated angrily. “I have never attempted to harm you in any way. I am now, and always will be, honourable – and I’m as much a victim as you. Perhaps if you weren’t so full of your own self-importance, you might come over here and see if you can unbind me.”
Karayana narrowed her eyes and puzzled over his words. Why would anyone want to kidnap Portheas? Then it occurred to her that actually he was a much more valuable hostage than she was. So someone had taken them both?
She didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure what to say. She had been angry with Portheas for so long, had decided to hate the thought of him as her future husband. How could she now talk to him civilly? He slumped back against the wall.
“How did you get here? And where are we?” she snarled.
“I have no idea. From the state of my body, I would say I was drugged.”
Portheas shuffled, trying to ease his bound limbs.
Karayana’s brain was now working sharply again.
“How did you know it was me here, in the dark?” she demanded coldly.
“Someone opened the door to check on us not long after I came round. I saw it was you in the light.”
Karayana frowned suspiciously.
“It is at least two years since you last saw me. You recognized me that easily?”
“It is three years, and you have,” he paused, “distinctive features.”
She eased herself down off her stone bed, her mouth set in a grim line. Her legs wobbled unsteadily but her anger made her determined. What the hell did he mean by ‘distinctive features’?
“They placed a jug of something on a shelf by the door. Could you see what it is? I could really do with a drink.”
“Get it yourself,” she said, instantly feeling like the slave she was headed to be if she married him.
“I would love to,” he muttered slowly, “ But I told you, I am tied up.”
Feeling slightly foolish. she made her stressed legs work and walked over to the door. As she felt along the wall for the shelf, she forced her breathing low, centering herself. Her fingers found a small ridge, and on it was a jug. She lifted it and sniffed the contents warily. There was no real smell. She dipped one finger inside. It felt like cold water, but was it? Was it drugged? Her mouth desperately wanted to taste that water.
“What is it?” Portheas asked.
She looked towards his voice.
“Water, I think.”
“Then why are you hesitating? I need to drink.” There was a note of desperation to his voice now.
“What if it’s drugged?” she said sulkily, in way of explanation.
She heard him sigh.
“To tell you the truth, I really don’t care.”
Warily, she felt her way towards him. Her hand touched something warm and, with a jump, she realized it was his leg.
Forcing herself to stay calm, she said, “I can’t see your mouth.”
He grunted, frustrated.
“Have you anything at all that will cut through my bonds?”
Karayana cursed the dress she was wearing that contained no pockets to hide anything in.
Her heart hammered loudly in her chest, pulsing with the ache in her head. Suddenly, she felt relieved that she wasn’t alone and disappointed that she couldn’t free him.
“I have a tiny knife, little more than a keepsake given by… a friend,” he said softly, “but it is in a pocket on the inside of my shirt. They obviously missed it when they took my sword and knives.”
Karayana swallowed. “Which side?”
Warily, she reached towards him and stopped when she felt thick, coarse wool.
“That is my cloak. Feel to your right slightly and you should find your way under it.”
Trying not to shake, she obeyed his instructions and found the buttons of his shirt. She stopped again.
“You need to undo a button or two and feel to your right. You are in the correct area.”
Trying not to think of her actions, she mechanically undid a button, and then another, before squeezing her hand into the warmth of his shirt.
Portheas winced involuntarily and she instantly pulled her hand away.
“No, no, it’s alright. You have cold hands,” he explained, a hint of amusement in his tone.
With a grim determination, Karayana again slid her hand into his shirt and felt for the pocket. She found it over his heart and reached inside for the knife. Gingerly, she slid it out of his shirt and felt along it for the blade. There was none, just a small ridge on one side. Remembering a similar knife that Marti had once owned, she gripped the ridge and pulled. The knife snapped open. At the same time, there was a noise outside the door.
“Quick, lay back on your pallet, someone comes.”
Karayana took the three paces back to her bed and flung herself down on it, her face to the wall. Without thinking she closed her hand over the tiny blade and felt its sharp edge cut into her palm. The door opened, and the light seemed blinding, even through her closed eyes.
“I’ve brought food,” Mica spoke sardonically. “Apparently, I have to keep you fed and watered. Though I really can’t see what that will achieve.” And then the voice spoke thoughtfully, “Unless they want you to encounter death fully with all your faculties clear. I suppose it would make things more entertaining.”
Karayana suppressed a shudder. She heard the tray rattle as it was placed on the floor.
“And how am I supposed to eat like this?” Portheas asked, his voice void of any emotion.
“I suppose you’ll have to try and wake up sleeping beauty here. Perhaps a kiss might do the trick?”
“Why are you holding us?” Portheas asked, ignoring her taunting.
“Just obeying orders.”
“From who?” he pushed, but the girl was silent. Karayana could feel her staring at her back.
“Has she come round again yet?” she asked of Portheas.
“You answer my question, I’ll answer yours.”
“Never mind,” the voice sounded amused. “I can wait.”
The door swung shut with a metallic thud and Karayana sat back up slowly, carefully opening her hand and removing the knife.
Her palm was sticky with blood and she was unable to hide the intake of breath as she flexed it.
“Karayana?” Portheas whispered.
“I’m fine,” she answered smartly. “I hurt my hand. Let’s get these ropes cut before anyone else comes.”
She got back down off the bunk, her mind reeling from the implications of what she had heard. Who wanted them conscious? Portheas shuffled around on the bunk and Karayana tried to discern his hands in the dark. She reluctantly resorted to touch to find the rope, and began sawing with the tiny knife.
“I think this may take a while,” she muttered.
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” Portheas shrugged.
“Stay still,” she hissed, “I nearly caught you.”
He was silent for a minute.
“I thought that might please you.”
“What?” she spoke crossly.
“Well, the way you’ve spoken to me so far, I would have thought that hurting me would bring you pleasure.”
“No.” Karayana was getting more and more annoyed. Why couldn’t he just stay quiet and let her put her thoughts in order?
“I take it you don’t relish the thought of marrying me.”
“Not exactly.” Her tone held a note of sarcasm. Portheas turned his head to look at her.
“Did it ever occur to you that perhaps it wasn’t to my liking either?”
Karayana stopped sawing for a second, glancing up in shock. Portheas turned his head away from her and she bent back to the task of freeing him. She felt her face reddening and was glad of the dark. She didn’t know what to say.
“Karayana, I was willing to go ahead with the marriage for political reasons. You are fit and healthy, but if I’d had a choice, I wouldn’t have picked you. If I ever get out of this present mess, I will do us both a favour, and persuade Father that this would be a mistake.”
Karayana swallowed down a sudden sob that tried to creep into her throat. She had never even considered Portheas in this matter. She had been vain enough to expect that he would jump at the chance of their marriage.
“I hear you have a very attractive younger sister. So all is not lost on the political front.”
Karayana jumped away from him.
“Untie yourself,” she snarled flinging the knife to the floor. Returning to her bunk, she sat with knees pulled up to her chin and blinked back the tears. He grunted as he strained against the bonds, trying to break the last threads of rope. How had her life gone so wrong in such a short space of time? She had selfishly hurt everyone she cared for, and managed to make enemies along the way. And for some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about her hand inside Portheas’s shirt. A hole of despair gradually yawned open inside her. If only Marti were with her. If only this had never happened.
“Aah, done it. Pass me the knife so I can untie my legs.”
“Its somewhere on the floor,” she said tonelessly.
“Great.” She heard him feeling around in the dark and she slowly got back to her feet to help. Her hand closed on the sharp blade and, gingerly, she retrieved it.
“It is here.”
His fingers found hers in the dark and her heart thundered again at the warmth of his fleeting touch.
After several moments of tense silence, Portheas spoke.
“Any ideas who might have kidnapped us?”
Karayana broke out of her despairing thoughts to look across at him. He broke the final bonds and pulled up his ankles to rub the circulation back into them.
“None,” she whispered, her voice quavering slightly.
Portheas eased himself carefully onto his feet, wincing sharply as the blood rushed back into them.
Treading delicately, he began pacing the tiny room. She leant back against the cold slab, as nausea welled up again. Closing her eyes, she willed herself to feel better.
“Looks like its slops for dinner,” he said, stooping to pick up the tray from the floor. “What do you think? Dare we try it?”
Karayana’s stomach turned at the thought of food.
“You try it.”
“Thanks.” He sounded insulted and she groaned.
“I didn’t mean … Oh, think what you like. I haven’t the energy to bicker with you.”
The room was beginning to spin. Her whole body pounded with the rhythmic thumping in her head.
“I think perhaps I should lie down,” she said shakily. And then her legs went from under her.
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