With every step, the rope chafed deeper into the raw skin of Kohir's wrists. In another hour or two, he was certain, he would see blood.
"There is no need of that," he protested at first. "You had taken my weapons and my horse. I cannot escape."
"Where would I go?" he reasonably asked some hours ago. "I no longer know this area. I could wander in circles until I die of hunger and thirst. You can untie me."
"I am Jadine's brother," he tried as a last resort. "Jadine, do you know her? If you come from where I think you come, certainly you do. I am Kohir, her brother. She will not take kindly to what you are doing to me."
But all was in vain. His captors – a strapping young red-haired lad, and a burly middle-aged man - remained silent, as if mute, and did not even exchange a word among themselves, as long as he could hear. They just shoved him in the back, to signal to him that he ought to keep walking. And Kohir kept walking. What choice did he have? He asked no more questions, either. He knew who they were and where they were taking him.
To the Emerald Mountains.
The trees grew taller around them, the road narrower, the forests wilder, the mountain peaks dazzlingly white and covered with everlasting snow. Sometimes he rode double with one of his captors, his wrists still tied together, but not in as mercilessly tight a fashion as before. Then, lulled by the swaying motion of the saddle, were the only times when he could snatch bits of fitful sleep. At other times, even on rare occasions when cold and discomfort were kept at bay, he tossed and turned with anxiety.
When they came to a halt, he didn't know after how many days and nights, Kohir looked up incredulously. Ruins, he thought when he saw the broken towers, the hollow windows, the crumbling parapets, the bridge that was nearly rotten through. But then he noticed signs of life: a clatter of an opened window, a thin tendril of smoke, some men calling to each other in muted voices... and banners. Banners with color changing from dark purple to midnight blue to deepest black. Every shade of darkness.
He knew now where he was. He had heard of this place; in all of the Emerald Mountains, just one castle was ever built. It was the ancient stronghold of the sorcerers, one that time had reduced to the sorry condition he now saw with his own eyes... but unlike for many hundreds of years, it was now habited again. By whom, though? I will find out soon enough.
They did not walk across the drawbridge, which was all to the good, because Kohir was pretty certain the entire construction would collapse as soon as someone put his feet on it. There was a way around, it turned out, and two sullen guards in motley armor let them pass through with hardly as much as a grunt. Then he was given a shove in the small of his back and made to walk many lengths of drafty corridors, crumbling staircases, chambers strewn with rubbish and a vast ruined kitchen blackened by smoke of coking fires from centuries ago.
And then, he perceived, they were approaching the habitable part of the castle. It grew slightly warmer, or at least less drafty; human voices sounded around several corners, along with the clang of steel on steel – presumably someone was practicing in one of the inner yards. The walls looked sounder, rubbish piles were pushed aside, and although rain began to patter, he could feel no drops, which must mean that the roof has been recently repaired.
Finally he was led to a cavernous, dimly lit hall with walls of roughly hewn grey stone and a ceiling so high Kohir saw nothing but vast darkness when he looked up. Several doors led off the hall, and just as he stood there and wondered what is going to happen next, one pair of them swung open and several people filed through. Then Kohir raised his head with a jolt.
It was her. He succeeded; he found her... or rather, he was captured and brought to her, but what did it signify really? There he was standing in front of Jadine, his sister – who wore an expression of extreme surprise, but seemed none too pleased, as Kohir noted to himself.
"Kohir," she breathed out. "What – " but she checked herself, and rounded on his captors instead. "Untie him at once," she snapped. "This is my brother, you fools. What were you playing at, manhandling him this way?"
"We don't know he was your brother neither," said the young lad appeasingly.
"And if we knows, it wouldn't make things any dif'rent," grunted the older man. "We had orders. See a lone scout from South Watch, bring him. That's what we did."
In the meantime the lad pulled out his dagger and began cutting the rope that bound Kohir's wrists. In his haste he prickled the skin with the blade, and a thin trickle of blood ran from raised wrist to elbow. Kohir was too eager to have his hands free to mind much, though. With an effort he tore the last remaining strands of coarse rope, and groaned in pain as blood rushed to his wrists in a full flow that had been denied for so long.
"Now go," she snapped at the two men again. "And while you're at it, tell someone to bring us something to eat and drink. And to pile some more wood into this fire, too. My brother will be cold, hungry and thirsty."
"As are we," grumbled the older man, "yet we don't get so much as thanks for following orders..." at this point the tall lad whispered something in his ear, and together they walked away through another door.
Jadine hurried to Kohir's side and took hold of his chafed and bleeding hands. "Kohir, my sweet brother," she said in an unconvincingly mellow tone, yet her eyes were like chips of greenish ice. "Please forgive this very discourteous misunderstanding. It is a great pleasure to see you here."
"A great pleasure for us all, I daresay," said one of the men who came with his sister, an older man of small stature with kindly eyes and a mild voice. "I would have known you for Jadine's brother even if nothing was said, the familial resemblance between you is so prominent."
Then Kohir had a moment of leisure to examine his sister's other two companions as well. One of them was a formidable-looking, silent barrel-chested warrior clad in armor from head to foot, his face concealed by the lowered visor of his helm. And the other... he wore a queer black robe that seemed almost seamless, embroidered in purple thread around the hem, and his face...
"I know you!" Kohir exclaimed suddenly, looking directly at the man. "You have been in Rhasket for many years. You are the hermit goatherd!"
"This good man is called Lafgar, my brother," Jadine said, looping her arm through his in another unconvincing display of sisterly affection, "and he is no longer a goatherd. He has moved on to bigger things."
Kohir nodded. "So I would think," he ventured, not daring to say more in front of these men who, he had a vague notion, would kill him in the blink of an eye if they believed he posed any threat at all.
"The warrior here is Brave Garon," said Jadine, gesturing towards the armor-clad tall man, who merely inclined his head and said not a word. "And this," she said as she looked at the kindly little man, "is Vyolen, my teacher and mentor, and the greatest sorcerer Tilir had seen for the past thousand years."
"You know I do not wish to be called sorcerer, child," Vyolen said in his mild and polite voice. "I posses several aspects of the Gift, it is true, but..." he trailed off and spread his arms as if showing he had nothing to conceal – a notion Kohir highly doubted.
While he was being thus introduced, someone tended to the weak fire in the grate and it roared and leaped, filling the hall with pleasant warmth; and two men came in, bearing trays of bread, cheese, sausages, small pickled onions and dried apples. A stocky woman followed them, gingerly carrying a jug and several cups.
"Let us sit and eat and drink," said the little man Vyolen; he was the first to begin as he tore off a chunk of bread and cut a thick slice of cheese for himself. And, much as Kohir would have liked to be cautious and reserved, he was too famished to be so. He sat down and crammed food into his mouth, and washed it down with several cups of ale, until he finally leaned back, a little drunk and drowsy but nevertheless wary.
"I pray you excuse us, good men," Jadine said with one of her most enchanting smiles, "but I believe my brother and I will retreat to my chambers now, to dicuss some... family matters."
"Of course," Vyolen said courteously. "You didn't see each other for a long time; there must be so much each one of you has to tell the other," and his eyes twinkled with the light of hidden understanding.
Lafgar merely nodded, and Brave Garon showed no sign of having even heard them. Jadine, who hardly ate a bite, rose from her seat and took Kohir's hand again. He wondered whether anyone else noticed how tightly her fingers were squeezing his own as she led him out of the hall.
When a heavy wooden door was closed and barred behind Jadine's back, she faced him and he saw that the mellow pleasantness was replaced by a mixture of anxiety and cold fury.
"What in the name of the Great Spirit," she said, "are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question," replied Kohir, refusing to lose ground.
"The men who brought you here were right, you know. They do seize any lone scout from South Watch... but South Watch hasn't sent out lone scouts for many weeks now. Not anywhere near the general direction of the Emerald Mountains, anyway."
"You are my sister, Jadine," said Kohir. "You should have known I would not abandon you, even if everyone else did."
"No one abandoned me. I came here to be with people who care about the fate of Tilir, and have power enough to change it."
"Who?" he gave a small, forced laugh. "The little grandfather? Or the man who spent twenty years living in a cave strewn with goat pellets? Or perhaps the warrior who did not say a word throughout the entire meal, nor raised the visor to taste a morsel of food?"
"Brave Garon can be a little shy around strangers," said Jadine. "If you once chance to see his face, you will understand why."
"This doesn't answer the question – what are you doing here, Jadine? Up and down the country, the most ridiculous rumours are circulating..."
"That we are a group of insane sorcerers who intend to plunge Tilir into a world of darkness? That we are in open rebellion against the throne? That we mean to overthrow the king and seize the rule ourselves?" her mouth twisted. His silence must have been answer enough for her, because she went on. "Contrary to what some may believe, we acknowledge that King Alvadon, Ninth of his name, is the rightful king and ruler of United Tilir, Head of all clans, and Warden of the land from sea to desert."
"We, you say. Who are we?"
Jadine hesitated. "Men and women who have powers that have been needlessly discarded for too long," she said. "Soon, however, all will see that we still are a force to be reckoned with."
Kohir opened his mouth to say something sensible, but she cut him off. "Think about the king," she prompted him.
"The king?" he was bewildered. "King Alvadon?"
"Do we have another? Tilir had seen worse rulers than King Alvadon. He is reasonable, just, and not wholly a craven. The trouble began when he bypassed the many noblewomen of Tilir, each of whom could have been a good and true wife and a gracious queen, and married his foreign princess. Years have passed, and all she had given him are stillbirths and miscarriages."
Kohir shifted his weight from one foot to the other, uncomfortable. After the surfeit of food and wine, he would gladly have slept, but Jadine was restless, determined to speak. "It is known that the queen's health is delicate," he offered, "yet as far as I know, the Healers have declared there is still hope. The king might yet have an heir."
Jadine made a little noise of derision. "Yes, there is still hope... if the queen dies during a subsequent miscarriage or stillbirth, leaving His Grace free to remarry – or if the king seeks annulment for the marriage. He knows it may be granted to him, reasons of state taken into consideration, but he is too noble to commit something like this. And so, our king remains locked in his fruitless marriage, without an heir of an unbroken male line."
"There are his brothers," Kohir suggested feebly. This time, Jadine laughed out loud.
"Do you refer to the lackwit, or the cripple? There is also the king's sister, to be sure, and she has children of her own – but alas, a long time has passed since Queen Thasiella was crowned, and I'm sorry to say that Tilir is unlikely to accept a woman as a ruler... the king's daughter maybe, but not his sister."
"There is other kin. Uncles, cousins..."
"No one with a claim which would be stronger than that of the others, and do you imagine the rest would step aside? No, upon King Alvadon's death they will brawl like dogs with a bone, and this, coupled with the rising of the clans, and with the pressure the rest of the world is putting upon us... I regret to say this, Kohir, but there will be war and terror and chaos, and the land will bleed."
"So you would plunge it into darkness?" he prompted, attempting to sound ironic and aloof. "Because to the best of my knowledge, that is what you mean to do." He lowered his voice and made an attempt to get hold of Jadine's hand again, but she crossed her arms upon her chest and looked him directly in the eye.
"The best of your knowledge is worth nothing," she said disdainfully.
"Indeed? Well, it matters not. I did not come to bicker with you, Jadine, but to help you."
"Help? Whoever said I need help?"
"Your actions," he paused. "Hiding out in a half-ruined castle with rogues, rebels and men of dubious reputation would have been unpardonable even if you were an unattached woman, but you are not. You have a husband and three children, or have you forgotten?"
Her eyes flashed. "Does it seem likely that I have forgotten? Despite what you may think, I love my husband and children, but I cannot just flee back to Rhasket and rush into Thadorn's waiting arms."
"As far as I know, there will be no need of that," Kohir said drily. "He is on his way to find you."
Jadine paled slightly; he managed to surprise her, Kohir noted with satisfaction. However, she soon recovered her composure. "Alone?" she asked quickly. "Or with an army?"
"Don't your far-famed powers allow you to know that yourself?" asked Kohir, ironically arching one eyebrow.
Jadine's nostrils flared. "I knew it. He is not coming to find me at all; he was sent here, and he is doing what he was bid... as always."
"You aren't doing Thadorn justice," Kohir said fairly. "Granted, I never understood why you married him, but he is a decent man, and he has suffered cruelly since you left. He has three children on his hands, people snigger behind his back, and almost our entire clan shuns him because he supposedly didn't watch over you well enough."
"He watched all too well," said Jadine. "That was one of the things that exhausted my patience. But Thadorn will learn and improve, I hope... once things are set to right and I am free to return home."
"I agree it might not be wise for you to return at the moment," nodded Kohir. "You might not be aware of it, Jadine, but your cozy little gathering here reeks of rebellion and treason. You must leave... at once, quietly, and alone."
"Truly?" mirroring his expression, she arched an eyebrow. "And where would I go... alone?"
"Not alone. With me," Kohir corrected himself. "There are many places beyond Tilir where we could go, many lands that I know you have always wanted to see. If you stay away long enough, it can be fairly safe for you to come back once the dust settles over all of this ridiculous business."
But Jadine shook her head. "I came here with a purpose," she said. "It has not yet been fulfilled."
Kohir felt his anger rising. "Your purpose may cost us all our heads," he spat.
"This needn't have been us," she told him. "No one asked you to meddle, Kohir."
He looked at her, incredulous. "So you are going to stay here? Here in this... this rubble heap? To do what?"
She turned her back on him. "That is my business," she replied curtly.
For a moment he stood there, wondering what to do. Arguing was no use; he knew Jadine well enough to understand when her mind was set. "Well," he said slowly, "the Great Spirit knows I tried to save you, but you are too obstinate to know what is good for you. I wash my hands of this. I will leave you here, and send word to Father that I have done my best – "
"Leave?" Jadine repeated, and the tone of her voice sent a chill through him. "I think not."
"Not?" he echoed rather foolishly. "What do you mean, Jadine?"
Her smile flashed like steel. "I don't know how to tell you this, Kohir, but we weren't exactly counting on visitors. You came, however... and as my brother, you will be an honored guest. But try to escape, and you will become a prisoner. Do I make myself clear?"
He felt anger within him, rising, surging, threatening to overpower him, to cloud his judgment. His hands balled into fists. "You cannot prevent me from going when and where I please," he said.
"No," agreed Jadine, "but neither can I prevent you from dying if you do."
She opened the door and made to leave, but turned at the doorstep and faced him again. "I will send someone to prepare chambers for you," she said. "I hope you will not be too uncomfortable."