Neil was dressed in brown, and had a swordbelt holding the katana by his side. His outfit was reminiscent of a ninja suit, only this was more functional and less costume. Or maybe ninja suits were functional, and only Hollywood movies made them seem costumes. Either way he looked very much a warrior, a side of him she hadn’t seen before.
He really was handsome in his own way. Not anything like Julian, of course, but she could see that girls would find him very attractive. And, despite his unorthodox methods, he must have a caring soul, prepared to do anything to help what he thought of as a worthy cause.
As he jogged along ahead of her, leading them along the side roads towards the spot to cross over, he looked different – more intent, more focused. He kept glancing back towards her, but she thought he didn’t really see her as Tracy any more. She was simply part of his team, which he was leading into battle.
When he stopped there was a cement run-off drain in front of them, and Tracy looked around for the signs of the soft spot.
“Where is it?”
Neil pointed down into the ditch, and then she saw it. There were shadows under the weeds that didn’t quite match the surroundings, and there was a glimmer of water in the bottom of the ditch that somehow seemed to reflect more than it should.
“OK, I see it. How are we going to cross – holding hands so we end up at the same place?”
“Good idea. Let’s get down there and then we can go.” Suiting deed to word, he scrambled down the side and held out a hand to her. Tracy started forward, reaching for his hand when her foot caught on something, and she started falling. Even as she fell, she realized she was heading for the soft place, and turned her body, tucking into a pike to make sure she hit the spot exactly. At the last minute she thought of Leman, and the cave, and Valinja and Anjilav.
Dimly she heard Neil shout, and then she was rolling on the ground, and Banilev was shouting her name. Then he was helping her up, and Leman was sitting in the corner of the cave, smiling in welcome.
Tracy turned and stared expectantly to the spot where she thought Neil would step through, but nothing happened.
“Are you expecting something?” Leman spoke quietly.
“Yes, Neil was with me and helping me. He’s right behind me, or he should be!”
“Yes, you know, Neil Juvay. He knows you, you sent him to fetch me, remember? And he was the one who first sent me across – he explained that. That you had to almost die to cross over.”
Leman rose and came across to her.
“How did you come to trust him? He was your enemy, was he not?”
“I thought so, but then he shared with me how he had met you, and learned of the prophecy, and recognized me, and sent me across to you.”
“The only knowledge of the prophecy is how the person would appear, and you did not look like that when you were in the other world, did you? Had he seen your totem?”
Tracy tried to think back. She had the whale with her when she saw Neil, or did she? Oh yes, he’d seen her catch it, and then she’d gotten a toy for Amber.
“Yes, he was there when I found it.”
“That may explain it. But I have never met another from your world. I am sure he has been here, but he has not been in my confidence, nor has he had instructions from me to search for the chosen one.”
Tracy stared at her.
“What does that mean? I…I trusted him. He helped to get the sword. He helped to get me here. He told me about the Dark Lord and the history and…” The strain of the fight with her mom, the secrets, the affair with Julian, the role she’d be playing here all hit her at once. Her mind felt as if it was on fire, and a white heat filled every corner of her. From a long way away she heard Leman shout at her, and then there was an explosion of feeling followed by oblivion.
Some undetermined time later, she drifted back. She was lying on a sled that was moving, and everything felt strange. Her head was light, her body felt insubstantial, and she knew she should be worried about something. She wasn’t sure what, and she was too tired to think about it. She let her eyes close and drifted away again.
When she finally came fully awake and aware she groaned. How had she gotten into this? She had had a life that was pretty good, and uncomplicated beyond the thoughts of a future career. Now she was a runaway from a mother who certainly didn’t deserve to be worried about her, a supposed savior of a whole world, girlfriend to a man she adored but couldn’t share anything with, and a stupid ninny who had been duped by some sweet talk and money.
She groaned again, then sat up and looked around her. The landscape was unfamiliar, and so were the structures they were in – great arched and vaulted pillars supporting roofs of intricately woven fabric, yet open on all sides to show walkways and squares. And it was warm.
“Ah, you’re awake. I took the liberty to sort through what you brought with you, and I approve your choices. As soon as you have had something to eat, we will construct the wand. And Zaphorim and Mizophar will spend time practicing sword-craft and battle skills with you. And before you ask, we are in the lowlands, in an area where the resistance to the Dark Lord keeps their forces at bay, and we can spend time developing a battle plan before venturing to the dark lands.”
“That’s not what I was going to say. I need to tell you about my time in the other world, and ask you if you really believe in my powers, or if it’s all just a joke.”
“You doubt your power as the chosen one? Banilev has something to show you.”
Banilev and Velinab smiled at her, then Banilev passed her a chunk of melted and misshapen metal.
“Don’t you recognize it?”
“No, it’s a chunk of metal, maybe from a forge that was allowed to die down. It’s melted and then set again.”
Tracy turned it over in her hands, then saw a familiar scroll edge. It was the shield that had stood in the cave, part of Leman’s regalia.
“What happened to it?”
“You did,” said Leman, “and if I hadn’t been quick enough all those in the cave with you at the time would have been cinders. You released all your energy in the mind-fire, and it’s lucky we were that close to the opening, so that we could scurry outside and shelter behind the rocks or we would have been dead.”
“One of the things the chosen one can do when fully equipped. With the sword, crystal and wood close to you, you released it with no control. Once we have the wand made, you’ll be able to channel and control its energy.”
“I had a melt-down?”
“Yes,” said Velinab, “you melted down the shield.”
Tracy started laughing somewhat hysterically.
“No, no, a melt-down is when you lose it.”
“Yes, you lost control.”
“I don’t think we understand each other. I mean I had so much on my mind with my mom, and then the news that Neil was probably not what he said he was, I just lost my mind.”
Leman said dryly, “I hope you find it soon, we do not have time for you to search for too long.”
“Yes,” said Banilev, “and we cannot help you search.”
“I give up. I don’t understand anything anymore, I’m doing things I hardly believe or understand, but I’m just going to go with the flow. Leman, you said something about making the wand?”
Over the next few days Tracy deliberately kept her mind numb, refusing to think of any of the people she loved and missed, such as Julian and her mom, and what they might be doing and saying, and also refused to pursue any thoughts about Neil. Nothing she thought would change anything, and he was an enigma. Maybe they would meet again, maybe not.
Under Leman’s instructions she assembled her jasmine branch and the crystal into a wand. She used the sword to cut a slit halfway along the branch, then had worked the crystal into the slit until it was wedged into the branch, bulging the wood and protruding either side. Leman had insisted on measuring the protuberances and adjusting the fit until both sides were even. Then they had melted some resin from the gowira, and poured it into the slit, around the crystal, filling the voids left by the mismatch between slit and crystal. The final act had been to bind the bulge where the crystal was with a length of silk, then coating the whole wand with resin.
Since then she had been practicing two things with the wand. The first was to channel energy to move and levitate things, the second to channel the fire energy. So far she had had little success with either. The levitation particularly was random and seemingly done by someone with a poor sense of direction, as a lot of the things she tried to focus on either just lay there, or flew off at great speed and in erratic trajectories. The fire was better, and she could produce a beam of energy that bubbled the rocks or engulfed the canija. However, it was a raging blast, not refined enough for Leman, who wanted her to be able to touch only a small part or engulf the whole, with the whole range between, and to control the temperature.
As for the fighting skills, the two teachers she had met had quickly made her realize just how little she knew about swordsmanship. They could break through her guard with little effort, and she had raised weals on both arms and her legs to mark their attacks on her. Yet they evaded her own attacks with ease.
It seemed that the secret was economy of movement, doing the bare minimum, not telegraphing your move, and above all focusing your energy into your blade. The drills against a dummy clad in a thick armor shell with her sword were designed, unlike the fencing drills, to find the chinks, and hack off bits of the enemy or strike a killing blow.
Zaphorim would encourage her to strike at the neck, short sharp stabs, or at the shoulders with a chopping motion. Mizoraph would circle her, giving her unexpected pushes, sweeping her feet from beneath her or suddenly stepping into a cut so that she would flinch.
“Why you stop! Enemy hit, hit! Stupid girl.”
“But I don’t want to hit you! This is a sharp sword and you’re not wearing armor!”
“Next time you stop I chop you!”
So she’d listened, stopped flinching and seen how Mizoraph deftly caught the blow with a twist of his/her?, she wasn’t sure, sword and then was out of distance again. As she struck with more confidence, and saw that she was still too much of a novice to break through the expert defence of the swordmaster, she’d started watching herself more closely. She had certain patterns, patterns ingrained by the fencing lessons. But did the sword respond to these? As she spent time wielding it, she realized it was a sword made for cutting rather than thrusting, and that cuts are most effective if they move diagonally – horizontal swings and vertical swings only left her exposed. She also realized that a fast diagonal allowed her to describe an ellipse in the air, and that she need not pause at the top or bottom of a cut, but could make of it one movement.
There came a moment when she suddenly felt the moves begin to flow, almost by itself, and her sword sang through the air, chopping the shoulder joint on its way down and then severing the neck on its way up. The torn and decapitated dummy stood mute.
“You now have insight! Vargood! Now we use padded sword, so me can strike and you need defend.” And the following fights with Mizoraph left her exhausted and falling into deep and dreamless sleep.
After eight days Leman called a council.
“We have sent the message about the Red Lady to all we know that may support us, and we have set a time and place for meeting.”
Zaphorim spoke. “Do we know that the DarkLord will not know of this?”
“Whether he does or not, we proceed as if they will. We will move with caution, and our allies must do the same. We have sent our scouts to see what movements are made, and what the dark castle sends.”
A person Tracy hadn’t seen before now spoke. “How sure are we that this is indeed the Red Lady?”
“She came to us as seen. She has prepared herself with all needed. She has not yet battled, but that is not far off. I think we will see then if she is or is not. For me, she is.”
“You ask us to risk?”
Leman raised a hand. “I do not ask if you are not. If you wish to remain under whips, then do so. If not, let us now speak of our battle plans.”
Tracy kept quiet. She was so unsure of so much, yet at the same time the unknown land still seemed a dream. It was like a fantasy, not real, not quite there. She knew she was here, she knew it in the ache of muscles, in the sound of her sword hitting a target, in the restlessness she felt when she thought of home and her mother, but at the same time she also felt strange. Did all heroes feel this way? That events had taken them over?
In stories they always seemed sure, and calm, and driven by a purpose. She felt none of that. She now knew that she had a real talent for wielding a sword, especially as she was breaking through Mizoraph’s defenses more and more in their sparring sessions, but could she kill? Really kill someone in front of her? She did not know.
And speaking of it to Leman did not help, as the woman would simply smile and nod, and tell her to believe in her powers. And that was another thing that was unreal, the way in which she grew more and more skilled at wielding the wand. She could now direct a thick beam of fire or a thin lance of flame wherever she wanted. She could lift a wagon for a couple of minutes and send it flying in any direction. And she could call forth the vegetation, moving it to where she wanted. The affinity of the canjira to her was now under her control, and she could either call it or send it away, or lull it into immobility. The fact that she didn’t quite know how she did it only added to the unreality she was feeling.
It would take about three days to move the army, as it had now become, to the meeting place, so Mizoraph told her, and they continued to spar for an hour every morning. On the afternoon of the second day a scout came running to the wagon she and Leman were travelling in.
“There is dark army coming. Maybe one hour get here.”
Leman turned to her. “Seems we will finally match your powers to his. Do not think if you are ready, just let your training take you where you should be. React, and let your training take you through.”
Tracy couldn’t answer. In moments, it seemed, she would blood her sword. Or be killed. She could feel her legs shaking, but she also knew that Leman had the right advice. Like the performance of the movement class, she had to take herself to that place where her training directed her muscles.
She, like most of the army, had been travelling in their armor, so there was not much preparation beyond drawing the wagons into a defensive huddle, deploying the archers in their ranks, and then waiting.
They could hear and feel the army before they saw it. The heavy riding animals crested a ridge and came strolling down, rather than thundering up as they had expected. The force stopped, well out of arrow range, and a single rider moved towards them, a branch held high.
“What’s that?” Tracy asked.
“Talking tree.” Zaphorim said. “I go talk.”
He or she moved out from behind the archers, and the two met, and stood talking for a while. Then Zaphorim moved back towards them.
“Leader talking wanted, please. They will move back and put table. Then leader them and you and Leman talk before fighting.”
“I see, sort of like the parlay we learnt about in history. So can we trust them to be honest and not treacherous?”
Leman and Mizoraph both nodded.
“Talking tree will ensure that. If anyone tried to attack, it would be hostile evermore.”
“You have seen how canjira respond to you? If treachery under talking tree, then all trees will try crush, fall on or smother traitor. We do not know why, but we know from other battles what happens.”
Tracy shook her head. How much more could she accept of the strange?
Several of the enemy force carried out a table and chairs, and set them in the middle of the field between the two armies. Then a person wrapped in a black cloak, with two other dressed in brown advanced on it.
Tracy, with Leman on one side and Zaphorim on the other, walked to meet them.
The six reached the table, and stood facing each other. The enemy had their faces wrapped with cloth, leaving only eyes exposed. Leman spoke up: “Unmask and sit, let we talk as men to men.”
“Agree. Sit please.” The leader of the three suited actions to word, sitting down in the middle chair. Tracy sat down in the center chair as well, and everyone followed suit. At a harsh word from the leader, all three removed their veils.
Neil Juvay stared straight at her.
“So you did make it across. I hoped you’d land in the between with that push I gave you, or that you would have some more of your famous doubts and jump straight back. Most inconvenient.”
“Me, as it were, in the flesh. As charming as always, but really, very disappointed that my campaign of the hard sell did not work as I’d expected. I really hoped you’d go back to mummy and try to make it up rather than follow that sword into battle.”
“How? How did you help me while being the DarkLord? Why? Why would you do this? You’re insane! Madly, totally insane. I was sure you were a friend, I came to believe you and trust you! I should kill you right now!” Tracy groped wildly for her sword and Zaphorim grabbed her arm.
“Maybe, but if you do, I’m sure they told you what would happen while we are in this parlay. You cannot do anything now except yield to me, as I do feel something for you and would spare you the battle which you will inevitably lose.”
“Says who – you? You’re so obviously scared of me and what I can do to you that you sought me out in the other world. And even there it didn’t quite work out for you. First the botched killing when I crossed over, then the fact that I didn’t follow all your suggestions. But I do have a question – how much can I trust this sword? Seeing that you helped me find it, how much did you sabotage it?”
“Only this – it will never kill me. I own it, since I paid for it, and here, what you own cannot be turned against you.”
Tracy stood up abruptly. “You tried to kill me once, and did not succeed. I no longer believe your lovely little story about that being the only way to get me to cross over the first time, you really did want to kill me. Then you did your best to turn me against Julian and somehow get me to like you so that I’d be on your side, and that has also failed. Just as your army will fail against us. And I promise you this, I will kill you. Maybe not with this sword, but I will kill you.”
“Sit down Red Lady, we are still in meeting.” This from one of the figures dressed in brown. “We have non personal war to discuss.”
“Not personal! Not personal! What the hell do you think war is, except personal?” Tracy felt the hysteria rising, the hysteria of worry about her mother, worry about her future, worry about Julian that had been buried under the physicality of the last few weeks.
Leman obviously felt it, and she interrupted, laying a restraining hand on Tracy.
“Even though no physical treachery act has been committed here, it is clear your lord knew that his appearance would cause a severe reaction. I can do no less than demand a time for consideration. We invoke delay of one hour.”
Neil bowed. “All’s fair. And so is your demand. We will withdraw.”
“One hour, then meet again.” With these words Zaphorim helped Tracy up and escorted her and Leman back to the wagons.