The scouting team crept along the outside of the spur of rock, using the broken outcrops as cover from the sentries on the walls. Not that there were many, and the patrols were sporadic.
Tracy, Valinja and Zaphorim were in the lead, following a path that, according to the information they had managed to gather about the castle, led to a sewer outfall at the rear. If they were prepared to wade through the muck, it might be possible to get into the castle quietly and secretly, and possibly open the gates for the main rebel army to enter.
The tension was high. Would their army outside the gates be discovered too soon? Would they give themselves away with an incautious move? Would the way be open or would they have to turn back?
One question at least was answered quite quickly as they reached the sewer. The passage was much smaller and narrower than they were told, but it was open. They could get through, but only by getting down on hands and knees and crawling in, noses scant inches above the muck. Tracy threw up at least twice on the trip through, and once inside they regarded each other with disgust.
“The sentries won’t need to hear us, they’ll smell us. What now?” Tracy stood, smelling foul, absently fingering her sword, when she touched the pouch holding her wand. She hadn’t done much wand work, since Leman had warned her that the wand would draw a lot of power from her as she used it to transform something.
Maybe she could try it? Transform the smell? Or the actual muck?
“I’m going to try something. Please be quiet for a little while.”
She took out the wand, and concentrated on finding the energy in it that resonated with her own energy. Soon she felt it moving, and then opened her eyes. The crystal was glowing, and the wood seemed to pulse. She looked around and saw a small puddle of muck on the floor. She decided to try turning it into clean soil, earth, sweet-smelling and neutral. Time would do that in any case as bacteria would break it down, and she concentrated on the end product. Satisfied that she had a clear picture in her mind, she pointed the wand at it and released the energy.
In moments not only the puddle but also the floor was turned into a loose soil that subsided into a pit. Tracy quickly cut the energy, but there was a large hole filled with loose sand.
“You want do that us? No thank!” Valinja shook his head violently.
Tracy could see his point, but she was sure she almost had the control. “Wait a moment. Let me try again. Please put some muck over there. Then stand back.” Valinja scooped a handful of the slimy mix onto a patch of floor. Then all of the others stood well back.
The second time the energy was easier to summon and control, and she decided to try for a narrow focus. The wand trembled, and slowly the puddle transformed, this time without any surroundings joining in.
While she still had the power under control Tracy quickly focused on the muck covering her. The slime dried, dropped down and left crumbs clinging to her. Valinja stepped forward, showing how much he trusted his Red Lady. She quickly had him cleaned up, and in short order had the rest of the party clean of muck as well. As the last person’s slime dried, she dropped the wand and then almost dropped herself.
Her energy had been drained and she could barely stand. Zaphorim and Valinja quickly caught her and helped her to a seat against the wall of the chamber. Valinja tilted her head and helped her to drink some water.
Zaphorim took over. In quick bursts he gave some commands and then explained to her.
“I send them to look, to see where places is, what path we have, what men there is. Then they come back, tell what happen, you rest and be ready.”
Tracy closed her eyes. She had poured a lot of energy into the transformation, and now she sat, muscles slack, head hanging, trying to recuperate. She must have dozed off, because she suddenly felt her shoulder being shaken.
“Red Lady, come, quick quick. Come now.” It was one of the scouts. She stumbled erect and followed him down a corridor. Soon they came to some stairs, and pelted down. Halfway down a guard lay dead, but neither Tracy nor the scout spared him a glance.
The stairs led to a corridor lined with cell doors on either side, and standing at the bars were the prisoners, arms reaching out for help. Did they expect her to magic the locks open? She was still exhausted.
But then a familiar voice broke through. “Oh dear God, will this nightmare never end? Help me, someone, help me!” It was her mother! Crying and wailing, in a voice that sounded exhausted.
“Tracy? Tracy? Can you hear me? Where are you? How are you here? No, wait, help me get out of this, please!”
Tracy pushed through the crowd around her mother’s cell. Her mother, wild-eyed, disheveled and clearly in great distress, lay on the ground, clutching her head in both hands. Not even at the worst moments in their lives, when Dad had died and the news had been given to them, had Tracy seen her mom like this.
“She shout Red Lady name many time. We send for Red Lady.”
“Thank you, but can we get the cells open somehow? I have to get in there.”
Just then Mizoraph came round the corner, with a bunch of keys.
’They in guard room, all guards there, now dead.”
He quickly found the right key and unlocked the door, and Tracy rushed in.
“Mom, mom, it’s me, it’s Tracy. Mom, let’s have a look at you, how did you get here? How did this happen? Mom, mom, come on, speak to me.”
Tracy pulled her mother up into a hug. She tried to get her mom to lower her hands and look at her, but no use.
“It’s another trick, just another trick. I never trusted that boy, never. If only Tracy hadn’t met him. I know it’s just another trick. Tracy, Tracy, where are you? What happened to you? Oh God, I’ve lost my baby.”
“Mom, no tricks. It really is me. Open your eyes, look at me. It’s really me.”
By this time Mizoraph and Valinja had freed the other prisoners as well. Zaphorim came closer to where Tracy knelt with her mother.
“Not sure how much time we have before new guards come. We must try to open gate. Red Lady stay here? Or come with?”
It was in that moment that Tracy realized how far she had come from the frightened teenager who had fallen into a prophecy. Her mind seemed split into two parts. One part wanted to take the time to comfort her mother, find out exactly how she had come here, although the phrase ‘that boy’ seemed to be a clue, but the other, larger part of her, the warrior, the leader, took over.
“I’ll be coming with you. I need a couple of people to take this lady, my mother, to Leman. I will spell her into sleep, so they will have to carry her out, and then put her in a wagon.”
“As you say, Lady.”
Suddenly her mom sat up straight, and looked at her.
“Stop it Julian, I know you are only trying to trick me again. You know where Tracy is, and you kidnapped me. You probably kidnapped her too. Did you hypnotize her too? What is this place where you’ve put me? Julian, I know it’s you, stop doing this right now.”
Julian? Her mom believed that Julian had something to do with this? But now there was no time to question or figure out things, there was a plan, becoming more precarious by the minute.
She concentrated again, gathering some energy, and felt the wand stir in its pouch. Taking it out, she touched the tip to her mother’s head, and concentrated on sleep, restful, deep sleep. Within moments her mom went limp.
Soon some of the prisoners, with one of the scouts as a guide, had set off to take her mother to Leman, and Tracy and the rest now followed the corridor further to the guard house, and then past it and finally up to the courtyard.
As they crept in the shadow of the wall to the gate, a voice, a familiar, clear voice, called out softly.
“Going to let your army in, are you? Not quite that easily, not that simply. You might be our prophesied nemesis, but that doesn’t mean we have to let you walk all over us.”
Julian? Surely not Julian. Neil was playing some trick on her senses. But then Neil spoke up.
“Exactly. We weren’t sure exactly which way you’d come in, and overlooking the sewers was a mistake. We hoped that you’d actually find the side gate, and be ambushed there, and never really get this far, but then we’ve had a lot of problems with you so far.”
“However, I’m afraid this is as far as you go.”
Fire sprang from the opposite side of the courtyard, and touched torches that had been waiting ready. Within moments the light showed a troop of DarkLord soldiers, and at their lead, two figures, dressed identically, almost indistinguishable except that one was dark, and one blonde.
Julian and Neil.
The DarkLord was twins.
And she loved him.
Luckily the warrior side had automatic reactions, and one of these was to dive for the deeper shadows. As indeed had the rest of her group. The firelight, flickering as it did, created pools of darkness, and Tracy used this to quickly whisper to Zaphorim to take four men to the rear, and instruct Mizoraph to take the remainder the other way.
Then she stepped out into the light.
“Is that you, Julian?”
“Indeed. I and my half person, Neil.”
“Only we aren’t from around here, as you’ve no doubt realized. Grandfather fell through one day while chasing a sheep, and soon realized he could have much better life here than back in dear old Ireland.”
“He got a job working for the ruler, two wimps named Bessian and Nabisse. Once he saw how things worked here, he brought his wife over, and she had Dad.”
Neil laughed. “Having dad born here was great, since the palace then thought him fit to be raised with the royal kids. Made it easy for him to kill them when the wimps died. And then, of course, he discovered that he could control plants and stones over here. So he went back a couple of times until he found a woman of like mind, and with a history of having twins in the family.”
Julian took over again. “And there we were, the royal family, mom and dad and us. Only people didn’t take too kindly to us, and so Dad had to show them that he was no pushover, and one thing led to another…”
“And now you are the DarkLord, only people thought there was only one. But why come after me the way you did?”
“You’re not the first redhead we went after. We knew about the prophecy, and so we’ve been slowly working our way through the likely candidates, polishing them off before they can get to us, so to speak.”
Julian smiled, but in the flickering light it was more of grimace. “Neil is quite good at sniffing them out and dispatching them.”
“You mean killing them, don’t you?”
Julian nodded. “Yes, killing is the term you’d use. We regarded it as a pre-emptive strike. Why wait for the enemy to come and destroy you, when you know they are coming? Strike first is the rule of war.”
“Your war, your kind of thinking. Oh my God, when I think of how you two must have laughed at me, poor innocent deluded me, friends with one who almost killed me, sharing my secrets with him, and falling for the other. Why did you help me get the equipment I needed? Was that some kind of twisted plot to get me on your side, thinking that once I got here I’d change my mind about helping the rebels?”
Julian took a step forward. “I never meant to fall in love with you, but…”
Neil wrenched him back in line. “Softie here really did fall for you, but he also knows that if you live, we die. I played you like a fish on a line, and made sure you got your weapon from my supplier. And Julian did your wand for the same reason – it cannot be turned against us, much as you would like to. So we have you, and your mother, and soon your army. Another unfulfilled prophecy!”
He strode forward, sweeping aside his cape as he did so, drawing his sword almost casually. Tracy had known he would do that before he did, the fighting computer of her brain saw the move start in his eyes and feet before it reached any other part. And she reacted, in what felt to her be slow motion, but then he was moving slowly too. His sword was halfway out, when her sword cleared the scabbard even as she dove in a rolling tuck towards him. Her feet shot out and hit him in the chest, her momentum adding to his to drive the air from his lungs in an agonizing hiss while knocking him backwards, into Julian.
Tracy gained her feet with a springy athletic shoulder spring, and thrust hard into the mass that was the DarkLord. She felt the sword strike something soft, then grate on bone as she twisted it and drew it back.
Zaphorim and his group cheered at this and charged the gate guards with a passion that froze the enemy for just long enough to be overrun.
Mizoraph and Valinja and their group had already engaged a group of soldiers on the stairs, slowly inching their way upwards, taking blows on their shields while dealing cuts at exposed ankles and knees.
Tracy pulled back her sword and stepped back, falling into the ready guard position. Had she killed one or both of them?
Before she could check, a soldier hurdled the bodies and engaged her. She parried and cut, parried his riposte, cut again, ducked under a sweeping blow and delivered a death blow to the exposed neck. But already there were two others to take his place, and it was all she could do to parry the blows raining down on her. She had to give ground, and wondered how far she’d be driven back before running out of room, when the gates swung open and the rebel army poured in.
The fighting became a melee, swords and armor clashing, people screaming, blood making the footing slippery and uncertain. However, it slowly became clear that the rebels were winning, gaining ground steadily. But, where Neil and Julian had lain, there was now nothing.
No one knew exactly where they had gone, but the rebel army followed the rule of inward and upward, spreading through the castle, battering down doors and rooting people out of niches and barricades.
All of this was not without loss on the rebel side, several hundred lay dead or dying, but they had made the enemy pay dearly for each fallen. And, of course, without clear leadership, soldiers seldom endure for long. And the DarkLord seemed to have deserted them – at least, they were not anywhere to be seen.
Tracy finally had a moment to draw a breath. She, Valinja and Mizoraph stood in the great hall, close to the throne, and watched as their troops disarmed the few soldiers of the DarkLord that were still alive.
“Did someone pick up the bodies? Were they dead or just wounded? Where would they go?”
Tracy’s questions were answered soon enough as a sudden fireball was lobbed into the middle of the mass of men, armed and prisoner alike. A second ball arced towards the throne, but fell short, as if someone who was not at full power had flung it.
“There! There by the gallery!” Valinja shouted and started running towards it. He had been withdrawn, and the only thing that seemed to matter to him now was killing the man or men responsible for his halfperson’s death.
Tracy quickly sent a shower of missiles toward the place where the fireball originated, and heard them clatter onto the stairs. She and Mizoraph ran towards it, and came upon Valinja standing over a body.
It was Neil. Tracy’s thrust must have pierced some vital organ, and he had obviously lost a lot of blood. Waxen features grimaced at them.
“I damnwell should have shot you from a distance, but Julian kept saying we needed to be sure to kill you cleanly. Cleanly! Hah! He’s always been the King Arthur …”
Death interrupted him.
“One dead. The other..” Valinja started up the stairs and a stone block came falling down, sweeping his feet from under him.
Tracy gestured, lifted the block and sent it flying up the stairs again, and heard it fall. She dashed up in its wake, in time to see Julian turn a corner. She put on a burst of speed, then checked. Rashly running headlong around a corner into a waiting sword would be the stupidest thing she could do at this stage.
Instead she sent a burst of fire snaking around, and was rewarded with a yelp, a muffled curse and as, she dashed around the corner in its wake, the sight of Julian darting for a door.
Behind her, she could hear people coming, and so did he. He hesitated for a vital second. Before he could slam the door shut she rocketed into it, but this time he was ready for her, and with a deft twist he tumbled her into the room and shut the door behind them.
She was back on her feet in an instant, sword at the ready. He too, held his sword with the relaxed air of a master.
“Just one question, is Neil dead?”
“Yes. He died on the stairs from the wound I had given him.”
Julian let out a sigh. “He was always more father’s son than I was, and he had a real taste for death. Of course I do too, I cannot claim to stand here with clean hands, but he truly reveled in the fight.”
“Why? Why take a harmless people, try to enslave them, treat them cruelly and badly? Surely there are better things than that? Your music, so enrapturing, so beautiful. And then this. And our love, where is that in this?”
“Have you heard that all greatness is born in suffering? I think it’s true in the world of men that most artists who create anything worthwhile have suffered intensely. Utopia is stagnant and void of strife, and thus decays into rot and slime since no creative spark is found. It is in strife, in violence, in suffering that we rise.”
“You must be joking! Rationalizing your cruelty because it would nurture creativity? How sick and twisted are you?”
“Not so sick that I do not regret being your enemy. What I found with you surprised me, and astonished me. I had not realized I could feel that. And still feel it. I love you, I am yours, and yet I am your enemy and I know you would kill me in a heartbeat like you did my brother.”
“Exactly!” Tracy lunged, launching an attack en fleche. Julian parried and counter-attacked, but she disengaged. He attacked in sixte, and she beat him down. They circled, closed, separated.
The door was shuddering as those outside strove to break through.
They engaged again, neither one gaining an advantage, then broke apart. As the fight went on, Tracy realized that she had the ability to fractionally anticipate his strikes when he was on the defense. She attacked with renewed vigor, and saw the minute opening as he readied to lunge at her.
She twisted, then slashed a backhand strike across his torso, and for the first time struck home. A long line opened in his tunic, and the slow welling of blood showed through. The slash had struck the ribs, rather than the vulnerable stomach, but it was an advantage.
He launched a furious attack, hacking brutally at her sword but she knew how to play deflections, and by circling backwards and allowing his blade to slide off hers rather than bearing down on her, survived until he showed signs of tiring. Not without cost, though. She had a long streak of red down one arm, and the point of his blade had scored a deep gouge over her left hip.
She watched for an opening in his defense and when it came, lunged. He twisted and the point only caught his side, but as she tugged the blade came free and cut across his forearm, making him drop his sword. Tracy dropped the point of her sword. Julian stood before her, unarmed, wounded, yet somehow still not vulnerable. He was stronger and quicker than she was, but she had had more skill in the sword. The DarkLord was not fully defeated, but right now, if she chose, she could run him through and end it all.
She looked at him, and he slowly raised his eyes.
“No more opportune time will ever present itself, you know.”
“Yet I still stand.”
“You still stand.”
He took a step nearer. She trembled all over. He reached out a hand, and tangled it in her hair, then pulled her closer, claiming her lips in a kiss that seemed to last an eternity. Her sword dropped to the ground and she stepped into his embrace, which tightened for a moment and then relaxed. Whispering into her hair, he said: “I cannot. I cannot but I want to.”
He pushed her away, looked at her with longing and dread. Behind her, the door to the tower chamber slammed open and Valinja swept past, spear held to spit his enemy on it.
Julian evaded him in a single graceful step, then gestured at a stone and caught it as it flew past.
“You are my life,” he called as he exited the window, “and my death! We will meet again.”
And even as arrows sped up at him, he directed the stone to a soft place and fell through.
“After him!” Valinja called, but Tracy lifted her voice.
“No, he is gone. We have his castle, and we have his army. He is alone, and wounded. I will cross soon and hunt him down on the other side, but here his power is broken. No-one knows what he has on that side, and I don’t want to lose any more people. Stay, and let us celebrate a victory, a victory of light over dark!”
Cheers broke out as this message was relayed to the crowd, and she knew that she had won him a respite. Her lips burned with his kiss, his hands seemed to be imprinted on her waist – a respite to do what? To become her death? Or her life?
For now, she knew, her life lay here, helping to build a new structure, settle disputes and rule the land of her destiny. The future was as obscure as ever, but he was somewhere in it, that she was sure of.
THE END (for now)
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