Portheas watched dubiously as Karayana and Marti crawled under the low branches of a rhododendron. With a cautious glance behind him, he knelt and followed them, trying to keep his cloak from snagging on sharp protrusions of wood. He could just see Karayana disappearing into the ground in front of him. On reaching the hole himself, he struggled to turn within the tight confines of the ancient shrub. Eventually, he managed to get his legs to the rim and, glancing down, he realised that there were holes in the wall that acted as ladder rungs, illuminated by a faint light emanating from below. Marti was waiting for him at the bottom, and with a slight nod of the head, led him up a short passage, which opened into a large cavern. This was the source of the light. Veins of crystal mapped the rocky walls, capturing light from some unseen source and creating a subtle glow. It was a vast area, with a large lake in the centre, fed by tiny rivulets of water that slid down fissures in the walls. The whole place had an ethereal beauty .
Karayana strode past him, arms full of kindling. He watched as she knelt on the sandy shore, arranging the small pieces of wood, the strange light falling around her, highlighting her slender figure and glancing off the sleek black hair that now fell loosely down her back. Marti, carrying some larger lumps of wood, interrupted his thoughts.
“Fair takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” he said quietly, glancing at Portheas with veiled eyes.
He walked on towards the fire, leaving Portheas to figure out whether he had meant the girl or their surroundings. Feeling slightly uncomfortable with the thought that Marti had indeed meant Karayana, he turned to find the wood store.
“Here. You’ll need these,” Marti said, handing Karayana his tinderbox. He knelt next to her and watched as she lit the dry wood. Sitting back, she stared at the tiny flame trying to get a hold on the sticks.
“I love this place. I wish I could live here forever and forget about the world.” She spoke quietly.
He glanced at her, but she still stared at the growing flame.
“Are you alright? You look like you’ve been pulled through a hedge backwards and then forwards again for good measure.”
Karayana smiled at the concern behind his light words.
“It hasn’t been much fun. There’s so much to tell you. I don’t really know where to begin.”
She sat chewing her cheek. He would have liked very much to hug her, and to stop his traitorous arms from doing just that, he reached for some bigger pieces of wood.
Portheas carefully put another load of logs on top of Marti’s, before surveying the cavern again.
“Is this a well known place?” he asked.
“Not as far as we know. We found it by accident when we were children. Neither of us ever told anyone or brought anyone here, and there have never been signs of anyone else’s presence.”
Portheas noted that Marti had not looked away from Karayana’s face as he spoke. He felt troubled by this man. For some reason, he had never expected to find a rival for Karayana’s affections. In fact, he had never expected to actually be that interested in her himself. They had been promised to each other from an early age, but that had always been politics. For some reason that he couldn’t comprehend, their time together had resulted in him finding her attractive; at times he had trouble taking his eyes off her, although there were sides to her personality that he found disturbing. Finding that someone who was so close to Karayana, who had her trust and friendship, felt the same, was not to his liking at all. On the other hand, Karayana had shown no signs of being aware of Marti’s feelings. She seemed to treat him as a close friend or cousin, sometimes slightly closer than he would have liked, but still, in all her naivety, just a friend. He decided that he needed to keep a close eye on them, but that to rock the boat now would just throw another element of chaos into their situation.
Marti began to build up the fire. Portheas sat opposite him, weighing up his opponent. Marti was a good-looking man. He was shorter by a head than Portheas, but thicker set. Even so, he was quick and nimble, very athletic, as Portheas had found out in that damn tree. His hair was blond, and longer than a soldier would normally wear it, showing that this man was a noble of some sort and not just a common foot soldier. His eyes were very blue and completely unreadable. He was sure that Marti did not like him very much, but as that feeling was mutual, it wasn’t a problem. How he fitted into the current situation was something that Portheas was itching to ask. Why was he skulking in the woods, watching his own people? Why had he not insisted that Karayana be taken back to the palace?
The fire was burning brightly now. Marti moved to the walls near where they had entered the cavern and climbed up a little way. Karayana sat in a trance-like state, and Portheas wondered if she were meditating. He watched Marti come back with a canvas bag.
“I have some soldiers’ bread if you’re hungry. It’s completely unappetising, but filling.”
Karayana’s head shot up and she reached out her hand.
“I will. I’m starving.”
He broke her off a piece of unrisen bread from a rounded package, and then handed the pack to Portheas.
“Have we still got the old fishing line down here?” Karayana asked suddenly.
“I’m not sure.” Marti began, but Karayana was on her feet and walking to the cavern entrance again. She climbed up a little higher than Marti had, then jumped back down with a thud, waving something in her hand.
Portheas shook his head. When would she act like a lady? But Marti didn’t seem to notice; he was up on his feet, taking an old rod from her.
“I’d forgotten about this. Pass me a bit of bread for bait and let’s see if we can’t catch ourselves a feast.”
“And while we fish, I’ll tell you my tale. Oh Marti, it’s just like old times,” she said, squeezing his arm.
Portheas felt a twinge of envy as Marti glowed.
He cleared his throat. “Have you two forgotten the predicament that we are in?”
Karayana gave him a small frown. “Not at all. Right now though, the predicament of an empty stomach seems more worrying.”
Portheas bristled at her tone.
“No one will find us here,” Marti assured him. “And I could do to know what actually happened to you.”
For some reason, Marti’s friendliness was irritating.
“It would be nice to also know why you were skulking around in the woods, hiding from your own comrades,” Portheas put in.
Karayana let go of Marti’s arm and planted herself in front of Portheas’ tall frame.
“What do you insinuate?” she growled up at him.
Portheas raised one eyebrow at her.
“Nothing at all. I was just interested in his version of events.”
Marti cleared his throat.
“I will tell you my tale too. But I warn you there is little to tell. I intended to find Karayana and help her in whatever way I could. I thought she had run away again, which is why I was being so secretive.”
He stared at Portheas all the time he spoke, his expression flat. There was no malice in his face, but the way he hefted the rod in his hand left no mistake about his feelings. Portheas forced a smile.
“So why didn’t you insist on taking her back once you’d found her As a soldier in her Father’s army, that would be your duty, would it not?”
Marti held his anger in check, ignoring the insult in the words.
“Why did you, as her betrothed, also think it more advantageous to not take her immediately back to her Father?”
Portheas didn’t have a chance to answer.
“Why do either of you think you have any authority over me?” Karayana asked, her eyes blazing.
She turned and stormed off towards the lake.
Marti stared at Portheas a minute longer before following.
Portheas kicked the sand in frustration, and then walked after them. There was no way he was missing out on their conversation, or allowing for any talking behind his back. He outranked them both and at some point, he was going to have to remind them of that.
They found a place on the lake where the fish were biting, and Karayana began her tale.
Portheas sat in silence, only once adding a few words to explain the little he knew of his abduction. Marti also sat quietly, and although Karayana mentioned nothing of the few close moments she’d had with Portheas, he felt that Marti cradled a jealousy for their time alone together. She went on then to tell about Ral, and Portheas knew a small moment of satisfaction that he already knew this tale.
Eventually all was told and Marti, who had gutted the fish, carried it back to the fire. He sat quietly threading fillets onto a long thin stick. Karayana watched him expectantly, and Portheas realized that she was waiting for his opinion.
“So you think that we can trust Ral to help us,” he said at last. “Are you totally sure of him, Karayana?”
She looked him in the eye, trying to hide the hurt.
“Of course. He’s a good man.”
Marti turned the fish on its spit.
“It’s just slightly concerning that all these events have transpired since he insisted that you returned home.”
Karayana looked down at her hands. Portheas awaited the explosion that he was sure would follow this remark. But she surprised him.
Speaking quietly, she said, “You must trust me Marti, because I’m going on a gut feeling. The girl who held us captive had similar powers to me, but she was evil, and her intentions were not good. The training I received from Ral never included using the energies for your own gain. He was very clear on this. The fighting energies were used for self-defence only, and most of my studies were about healing, physically and spiritually. She was like my opposite, her energy felt… wrong! It’s hard to explain this without experiencing it for yourself. She didn’t come from Ral. I know it.”
Marti studied her. She stared back, her face open and hopeful.
“It’s not that I don’t trust your judgement on this but we still have no idea who took you and for what purpose. It could be political, but I can’t see who would gain. We may be better going back to the palace after all.”
“No.” Karayana was defiant this time. “You know why.” She stared hard at Marti, and he glanced quickly at Portheas to see if he had guessed her reason. But he was giving nothing away.
Looking back to Karayana he tried to reason. “The trouble is that we are pretty defenceless and we don’t know what we are up against. It goes against my better judgement to take you to Ral.”
He tried to ignore the tears that she was determined to stop.
“Is my opinion of no worth on the matter?” Portheas asked quietly.
Marti turned to him, his expression veiled once more.
“If we are to travel together then it has to be.” He stared Portheas straight in the eye, and Portheas couldn’t help but feel a little respect for him. Marti had a lot of common sense and seemed to have sound judgement.
“Well, as it happens, I agree with you. But I am not sure if it is our only option.”
Karayana glanced up at him.
“If we are as safe as you say here, why not stay? We can gather information and then when we think it’s safe, return to the palace for help. No one would expect us to stay this close. It seems like a good compromise.”
He watched Marti gingerly test the fish, nodding.
“Perhaps we should. At least we can stay long enough to find out if we really need to disappear altogether. We could be overreacting, I suppose.”
Portheas’ respect for him rose a little more. Even though there was no love lost between them, Marti wasn’t going to disagree with a sound suggestion. Karayana, however, was.
She stood up and looked from one to the other of them.
“You are both wrong. I will not go back there and I challenge either of you to try and make me,” she warned, her eyes flashing.
“Karayana,” Marti reached his hand up to grab hers, but she flung it away.
“NO! If I go back there I will remain a prisoner for the rest of my life. I can’t do it.”
She started to storm off, and Marti got to his feet just as she turned back.
“In fact, you two stay, I’ll go. It was so much easier on my own. Then everyone will be doing what he or she wants to do. I will leave in the morning.”
She swirled around in her now ragged skirts and stomped across to the lake again.
Portheas watched Marti make the decision not to follow her. They sat either side of the fire, a tense silence settling over them. Both of them were aware of what her words meant. She didn’t want to return to marry him. He couldn’t decide if he was hurt or angry.
“Fish?” Marti proffered the stick to Portheas, who took the food eagerly. Whatever she made him feel, he wasn’t going to miss out on food. He was ravenous.
Every so often, Marti glanced over his shoulder at Karayana.
“I’ll go and see if I can get her to calm down,” he said eventually.
Portheas watched him saunter over to the lake and lay on his stomach to drink from under an overhanging rock. He walked confidently up to Karayana, and flopped himself down next to her. Portheas could hear the low murmur of their voices and soon occasional light laughter from Karayana. He watched on grimly as she leant her head against Marti’s shoulder. He had to admit, he couldn’t have cheered her up. In fact, he only made matters worse. He couldn’t stand much more of this.
“I’m going for a scout around,” he shouted, jumping to his feet.
Marti was up in an instant and coming towards him.
“Do you think that’s wise? You don’t know these woods.”
“I’ll be fine. I just want to get some fresh air.” Portheas was shocked by Marti’s reaction. If circumstances had been reversed, he would have been glad to see Marti leave.
“But you are in as much danger as Karayana. Somebody risked a lot to abduct you. They will try very hard to get you back.”
“Marti’s right, Portheas.” Karayana came to stand between them both.
“And I’m sorry, Marti, but you have unintentionally hardened my resolve to leave. Whoever wants us, for whatever reason, won’t stop until they find us. We need to stay ahead of them, and we need an advantage. I don’t care what you two think, but to me Ral is that advantage.”
Marti stared hard at her and then down at the ground, shaking his head.
“Fine, you win. I will accompany you. If we set off in the morning, we can at least get one good night’s sleep.”He turned to Portheas.
“I think you should reconsider going out alone. We are better sticking together.”
Portheas wasn’t sure whether to exert some authority here or swallow his pride and agree to do as he was asked. Normally, he wouldn’t have allowed Marti to speak to him as an equal, but today he had done it more than once. Feeling slightly awkward, he turned his back on their expectant faces and walked back to the fire.
“In that case, I might as well get some sleep now.”
He took off his cloak and spread it on the floor, then lay down and closed his eyes. Sleep might be a long way off, but if he feigned it, he didn’t have to watch Marti doting on Karayana.
Mica waited impatiently for the soldiers to leave the plateau. This was her only lead, as so far she had not found any clues to Karayana’s whereabouts. The search for her was still on though, so she hadn’t returned to the palace yet. Mica had overheard snippets of conversation from passing soldiers, and they seemed to think that this area needed searching again.
The sun was beginning to set when the military eventually left and she slipped backwards out of the bushes she had hidden in and made her way down the steep slope into the forest proper. She reached the base of the cliff and quickly scanned the area. Making a decision, she set off away from the pathway and, keeping her eyes to the ground, searched for clues. At last she was rewarded. A small strip of bright yellow fabric hung from a bramble. A brief study of the ground showed that three people had stood under a nearby tree and then carried on into the forest together. Frowning slightly, she considered this. For her to be on the correct trail, she should have been following only two people. Had someone joined them? The fabric proved that Karayana had been there and no other trail presented itself. She would have to follow it and hope for the best. She studied the tracks leading away from her, then with a smug smile on her face, set off at a slow jog, eager to be in sight of her prey again. Soon she had disappeared into the green gloom amongst the trees.
From the undergrowth behind the tree there was a rustling, as someone got to his feet.
“She’s gone, Loemo. You can get up now.” Briyden whispered, looking down at his friend who lay prostrate on the floor, not daring to move.
“Are you sure?” Loemo whimpered.
Briyden frowned at the back of Loemo’s head.
“Of course. Now get up, we must get back. I didn’t like her at all.” Briyden scanned the trees around them. “Loemo.” He nudged the boy with his foot. “She may yet come back.”
Loemo was on his feet in a trice and the boys set off back up the steep slope like mountain goats.
“I don’t think I want to patrol anymore.” Loemo said in a quavering voice as they reached the relative safety of the ridge. Briyden studied his friend, his fists on his hips.
“Don’t be such a chicken, Loemo. Anyway you have no choice. I will be your King one day, so you best get used to taking orders from me. If you get really good at being a soldier, I will let you be my right hand man.”
Briyden turned towards home.
“I might not want to be your right hand man.” said Loemo in a sulky, but very low, voice. Then he ran to catch up with his friend. After all, there was safety in numbers.
The echo of his footsteps followed Dorien as he walked through the high vaulted hall that led to his Master’s rooms. As he walked, he considered all that he’d learnt today. It was obvious that things had been kept from him, but not so obvious why. Now he had to decide where his loyalties really stood. Of course, holding his father hostage, even if in the most civilised of apartments, would help him to keep his mind on the job in hand, and he silently congratulated the Master on that point. If he had been asked if he had any feelings for the old man, his answer would have been in the negative, but finding out he was here had been a shock, and controlling his emotions not easy. The Master knew him better than he knew himself – or perhaps not. It could have been a gamble that paid off. But how much would he, himself, be prepared to risk? Well, he’d taken one risk. He hadn’t stepped in to help Mica when Karayana shocked them both with her strength. Realistically though, Mica had probably thought him already gone, so all his bases were covered on that score. Finding out that Karayana was Liasna’s daughter had pierced his heart. Was she Morden’s daughter too, or his own? Had Liasna had a child as a result of his abuse? He was unsure of Karayana’s exact age, but she looked old enough to be his. If only he’d had time to question Liasna more, but she may not have answered him anyway. She was truly terrified of him and that was the cruellest part of the whole fiasco. Seeing her again brought all his old feelings back. He still loved her, but at least now his emotions were well under control. Raping her had tortured him all his life and he was sure it would continue to do so. He had wanted her so much, his best friend. But she didn’t seem to notice him in that way and only laughed at his poems, telling him they were sweet. He felt a small piece of his boyhood hurt returning. That fateful night she had spurned a kiss, a kiss that he wanted and needed with all his heart. A kiss that he’d dreamt of for months. His lust had mixed with anger and, out of control, he had forced himself upon her.
He flinched as the guilt returned, remembering her half naked, scared to death, her mouth bleeding. Shaking his head, he fought to get a grip on himself. What could he do now? These thoughts wouldn’t make her think better of him. But if Karayana really was his daughter, he wasn’t about to turn her over to the Master until he knew exactly what the stakes were.
He knocked on the ornate wooden door that filled this end of the corridor. A decrepit old monk, who served as the Master’s manservant, opened it slowly.
“Dorien. You are back. Take a seat.” The silky smooth voice sneaked out from beneath a large black hood.
As he took a large chair opposite the fire, Dorien considered the man in front of him. Could he sense his fears and doubts? Under the hood, the Master was unreadable.
“Would you like some wine?”
“No, thank you. Coffee will do.”
They sat in silence until the manservant had gone.
“Did you know Mica has misplaced our captives?”
Dorien immediately became guarded. The Master had learned this information fast. Just how many other operatives did he have? Was someone spying on him?
“I did not,” he lied. Protecting his own interests had become more important than protecting Mica. “When I left, they were locked in the cell. We had received the orders to move out but we needed an extra relocating stone. That is why I have returned.”
“I expect the stupid girl decided to play with them for a while. It seems that Karayana is much stronger than we were aware of.”
“From what I saw of her, the power was raw, for the most part out of control. She has quite obviously had some instruction, but not enough to use her energy for anything much.”
“We need her back. I want you to find them, and Mica too.”
Dorien sipped his coffee. “Of course.”
“When will Mica learn?” the Master said shaking his head slowly. “There is much potential in her, but she doesn’t use it wisely. You should take her under your wing.”
“I have tried that before,” Dorien admitted. “She despises me.”
“She despises everyone.” He gave an uncharacteristic sigh.
“I’ll deal with her when she returns. Go and eat, Dorien, and then find them.”
Dorien returned his half finished coffee to the table and headed out of the room, wishing he dared to ask why she was so important. Just before the door shut, the Master called his name.
Trying to remain calm, he pushed the door open again.
“Did you know your Father is here?”
“I did, thank you. Yoti told me.”
“Please make time to visit him. He’s been asking for you. Lovely man.”
“Yes. I will. Thank you.”
Relieved, he closed the door and made for the east wing where his father was being held. Now for the next unpleasant meeting, he thought. This day is full of them.
He entered the room quietly. There had been no answer to his knocking and now Dorien worried that something was amiss. As he closed the door behind him, a loud snore filled the room and, with a feeling of relief, he saw his Father sleeping soundly on the bed. He walked quietly over to him. The picture he still held in his mind of this man did not match the one he was looking at now. The hair was white, not grey, and the beard looked like it had been growing through all the many years since they had last met. Lines creased the face and blue veins stuck out on the backs of the gnarled hands. Deep regret struck Dorien then. All those years lost to them, but he had not dared to return. Even now, he wondered how he was going to find the strength to face this man.
He slumped in a chair, staring at the rise and fall of his Father’s chest, and thought back to his childhood. They had been friends. Galron was the kind of father that Dorien always hoped he would be. A sharp lump stuck in his throat as memories swirled around him. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, fighting for control. He owed it to this man to help him. Whatever it took, he would see no harm done to him. Did that mean he would give up Karayana for Galron?
He rubbed his face vigorously. He didn’t have an answer for that one yet.
The snoring had stopped and he opened his eyes again. His father stared at him, his expression unreadable.
The voice that answered wavered slightly. “You have no Father.”
Dorien rose and poured two glasses of water.
“Fine,” he said returning to the bed. “But I am glad to see you again.”
“Why have you taken me?” Galron demanded.
“I… it was not me. I think you are here so that I will do as I am bid.”
“Ha. Did you tell them we mean nothing to each other?” Galron snatched the glass of water and drank it down in one go.
“No,” Dorien admitted slowly, “I didn’t think that wise.” He paused, considering. “It is also not true on my part.”
Galron gave him a disgusted glare.
“What is going on, Dorien? What are you involved with?”
Dorien frowned. “I can’t reveal anything to you. I am sorry.”
He jumped, as Galron laughed scornfully.
“Sorry!” he spluttered. “Are you sorry for what you did all those years ago? Are you sorry for the pain you caused Liasna? Are you sorry for the shame you brought on me and your brother?”
He choked, sitting forward, trying to catch his breath. Dorien leapt up in alarm, placing a healing hand to his Father’s back, but Galron managed to push him away.
“I don’t want your healing. Go away from me. Do your dirty deeds somewhere else. I don’t want to see you.”
He stood, bewildered at his Father’s side. Somehow, he had never imagined it would be this bad. Not after so long. Feeling the lump return to his throat, he whirled around and left the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
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