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Part Three: Chapter 40

The tent’s flap opened suddenly, jolting Fashra from peaceful slumber. Her eyes flicked open, and her slender muscles went instantly taut: yet she remained perfectly still, using the darkness to hide her wakefulness. With even keen elfin sight of no use, she reached out with her other heightened senses to uncloak the scene about her. The warm breath on her shoulder revealed that it wasn’t Berac returning from a trip to relieve himself, although the feel and smell of a gentle inrush of night air confirmed the flap had indeed been parted. A light footstep. Another. Then came a sound like a small metal hinge creaking—and she sprang into action just as a soft red light illuminated the tent. In one smooth sequence of motion, the elf rolled from her lord’s bed, grasped some object from the floor to serve as her weapon, wheeled on the figure holding the lamp, lunged…

And was tossed aside like a limp doll, her body striking with a thump against one of the thick poles near the tent’s rear. There she hung in midair—unable to speak or move—as if invisible hands had clamped down on her neck and all four limbs and pinned her to the support.

The combination of light and noise was enough to finally stir Berac. Shifting, he propped himself up on one elbow, groaned, and brought up a hand to shield his bleary eyes from the bright onslaught. Instantly he felt the tip of a cold steel blade touch his neck beneath the beard.

“Don’t cry out, friend,” came the intruder’s hushed, imploring words. “I’m not here to harm you. Only to speak.”

“You…” replied Berac in a voice raspy from disuse. “But…how?” Slowly he lowered his hand to the bed. Squinting eyes darted about the tent, seeking and swiftly finding the incapacitated elf-woman. His lids opened wider at the sight of Fashra’s supernatural predicament—but his astonished gaze didn’t dwell on her long. Turning his attention back to the intruder, he added: “What’s going on here? Why have you come?”

“Nothing’s amiss outside, I assure you, other than a few guards pried from their posts and detained. In a moment I’ll lower my blade as well; but first look again at your woman, Berac, and realize what you’re dealing with here. You and I aren’t strangers, and I’d keep the peace between us. Yet don’t doubt who holds the power here and now. Raise an alarm, and I’ll to run you through, crush the life from this elf, then fade into the night. Nothing gained but nothing lost from the venture. Understand?”

Berac glanced at the helpless Fashra as instructed and, apparently convinced, nodded his reluctant acceptance.

Baeldrin withdrew his sword but didn’t retreat from blade’s reach. Rather, he hung the lantern on a hook and sat down at the bed’s edge, letting the point of his weapon touch the ground as he rested one hand on its pommel.

A soft moan—almost a whimper—escaped from Fashra, and the men’s faces returned to her. She was clothed only from the waist down, and her sleek arms had been pulled behind her, causing her chest to jut out. “You’ve a fine kitten there,” Baeldrin mused. “But I don’t think I’ll release her yet. I suspect she has sharp teeth and claws. Am I right?”

The Mardothan king nodded again. “This is…the witch’s magic?”

Baeldrin frowned, briefly puzzled. “I see you haven’t heard. What of Van’s bird, then? She said it passed over to you.”

“I’m afraid the kitten here pounced on it, once she convinced me to sever ties with Saedus. It would’ve been too dangerous to keep around at that point, with stray ears open to its wiles. What is it I’ve missed?”

“Good girl!” Baeldrin grinned, sidestepping Berac’s question to study Fashra again in a different light. “I should rethink your treatment, now…since you’ve clearly begun my work, even before my arrival. If I’d known I had such an ally here beforehand, I wouldn’t have ridden two horses to death in my haste. I may have even dared to give myself over to your master’s guards instead of staging this little production. But no matter. Nod if you agree to back down once I let go.”

The elf did so—and almost immediately she visibly relaxed, her body sliding down the pole to crumple into a squatting position. One arm came up to cover her breasts…but otherwise she honored the agreement, remaining still. The look in her eyes was murderous, yet somehow she held herself in check.

“So you’ve rebelled against her also?” spoke Berac, anxious to bring Baeldrin to the point.

The Domalin prince chuckled at that. “Not by choice, in my case. Yet the result’s the same. We’re dethroned outcasts, you and I. Used and discarded. I always knew she’d betray me, but I didn’t think it would come when it did. Not so soon after my triumph. She almost caught me unprepared. Almost.”

“You confronted her?” said Berac, a hint of amazement in his voice.

“No. She underestimated me. Sent her dog Zera to do me in. He failed.”

“I see. It doesn’t surprise me—of Nephos, I mean. He tried to hide it behind love of his land and kin, but there was always that hunger in his eyes. I was glad to send him away. ” A pause. “Is he dead then?”

“Perhaps. If not, he soon shall be. I swear it.”

Taking advantage of the silence that followed this statement, Fashra began to rise. Slowly this time. No sign of threat. “May I retrieve my clothing?”

Baeldrin looked her way and nodded.

Both men waited without speaking while the elf-woman found her robe and donned it; then Berac motioned her over to sit beside him. As she did so, he eyed her appraisingly for a moment, running a hand through her silver hair. Clearly he was beginning to relax somewhat. With an audible sigh, he turned back to his uninvited guest. “You came here alone?”

“I fled from Rardonydd with a single servant in tow.”

Now it was Fashra who spoke: “But…the guards…how did you…”

Baeldrin waved a gesture that stopped her short. “The secrets of my power are my own. As I said, I’ve slain no one. I’ll release them all once we’re done.”

“Done with what, Baeldrin?” said Berac, irritation plain in his voice. “If you’re merely in need of refuge…”

“No. That’s not it.” The prince ran a hand across his tired brow. “Let me get to the point.”

“Please do.”

“As I see it, Berac, I’m still Lord of Domal, you’re still Lord of Mardotha, and we’re still allies. Only now our enemy’s changed. We can sit here by the river and attempt to drown our sorrows in women and wine, cursing old enemies and ill fates—or we can set sniveling aside and regain control of our lives. Yet time’s of the essence. We must be decisive if we’re to stand a chance against the witch. We’ve only a small window of opportunity—and if we fail to take it, she’ll move quickly beyond anyone’s reach. Once that happens, then who’ll have won? Not you. Not me. Not the Sinians. In the end, she’d crush us all.”

The Mardothan considered this a moment. “The same as you’d do, were it still within your grasp. Don’t deny it.”

“I won’t. But you’re right: it’s no longer within my grasp. She’s seen to that. Whether we concede to her rule or unite and cast her down, my empire dreams have been shattered. At best, I hope to regain my rightful throne in Domal. At worst, I’ll lose my life in the attempt. But for now what I crave is revenge. Don’t you desire it too? Surely you know who’s ultimately responsible for your loss. Turn the hatred in your mind’s eye from Deserus Oen’s face. See who’s looking over his shoulder? With that goddamned smirk on her face?”

Berac frowned but remained silent.

“Yet we must get past the foe in front to get at the one hiding behind,” said Fashra. “I’ve also urged him to action—and nearly succeeded, had it not been for Hatrakori.” She spat their host’s name as if it were a mouthful of piss but dared not add an expletive to it. “That man would have us dawdle here for the rest of our days!”

Her master gave her a disapproving glance. He hadn’t even blinked at her innocent question of moments before, but now she’d planted herself firmly in the midst of the men’s conversation. She did raise a good point, however, so Berac decided to let it go. Besides, Baeldrin surely wouldn’t allow him to send her off at this point. Since she was going to hear it all regardless, she might as well be allowed to participate.

“And by the time you’re done wrestling with the dog before you—assuming you can tame it at all—the bitch behind will have set an entire pack of starving wolves against you both. What strength would you have left then to stop her?” Baeldrin shook his head slightly. “Perhaps I’ve given you too much credit, elf. Why beat the dog into submission—or even try to step around it—when you can simply toss it a bone? Why not give it a nice pat on the head, then sick it on the bitch behind? The Sinians must face Saedus now, regardless. Will you aid her cause by nipping the dog from behind, or will you march instead beside your last hope of defense?”

“Our defense?” Berac scoffed. “Those bastards booted us out of our city after killing droves of my people. Are you suggesting I kiss Deserus Oen’s feet? Have you gone stark mad?”

“And you killed droves of his men in turn!” Baeldrin’s voice rose to meet the challenge. “They didn’t take Crûthior easily. However much they might boast the opposite, you know they must truly view Mardothans as worthy adversaries. Swallow your pride, Berac, and make a deal with Oen! Aid him now to remove the threat to us all, and leave him indebted to you in return. Only then will you safely reclaim what was yours.”

Berac opened his mouth to rage again but instead bit back his words with a muttered curse and a sigh. When he spoke again, his voice was calmer. “Your argument might be convincing, were it not all founded on assumption.”

“You forget that I was much closer in counsel with the witch than you ever were. I know exactly what she has planned for you once she’s done with Oen—and believe me, it’s far from what you were told. That knowledge was supposed to die with me. Yet here I am, delivering you this warning. I suggest you heed it well.”

“And if I don’t? As you see, I’ve already been criticized for delaying another assault on the walls. Even should Deserus and I come to some agreement, what makes you think our warriors won’t turn on each other like rabid dogs at the first jibe hurled the other’s way? And who’s to keep the city while we all go traipsing down the plains?”

“I could force you to do it.” A pause to let this sink in. “But neither one of us wants that.”

“You overestimate your power.”

Baeldrin shook his head. “Don’t test me, Berac. You’ve just seen me render your woman paralyzed—and I can just as easily usurp your mind. I’d have your mouth spewing my commands with the fervor of a zealot, although your private thoughts screamed against them helplessly from some tiny corner of your skull. Please…I beg you…let’s not go there.”

At this Berac turned to Fashra for some measure of support, but the defeated look she returned him was clear. The Domalin prince wasn’t bluffing, it seemed. It would be in both their best interests, at least for now, to play along.

Baeldrin correctly took their silence for the response he sought. “Excellent.” Without further ado, he stood and sheathed his blade. “Tomorrow we go before Deserus with our plans. You’ll offer him aid in crushing Saedus’ armies; and in exchange he’ll return Crûthior—along with a portion of its spoils, I presume—to you once the safety of his beloved capital is again secured. A city for a city. It’s simple as that.”

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