Chapter 11: Day 3 - The Bridge
With a little bit of sleep, a trip through the stars, and a mountain range between her and the Malum, Rin was able to push some of her magical concerns aside, at least for now. For whatever reason, Prince Alexander still traveled with her to Crystal Palace, a place finally in her reach. The distance and the darkness were nothing to the hope of catching a glimpse of the beautiful towers of a real palace.
Her only real obstacle now was that river.
She stood with her toes just grazing the edge of the rustic stone bridge and peered across to the hills beyond. The bridge used to be covered by an arbor of vines climbing up a carved wooden canopy, but the canopy had long since fallen into disrepair. Some sections had collapsed completely, buried deep beneath the quiet water. Tenacious vines looked like they might be all that was holding the walkway together at this point. No one had crossed this bridge in a considerable length of time.
She eyed the streaming water warily, as if it might leap up and bite her. Shrilynda warned her never to cross Crystal River, but interpreting Shrilynda’s threats was an art. Self-centered to the extreme, Shrilynda cared little about what happened to others. She did enjoy a reputation of being fierce and feared, and she followed through on dramatic threats just often enough to inspire that kind of fear in those around her. If Shrilynda ever threatened to turn someone into a toad or drown him in his sleep, she relished the paranoia of the terrorized more than the messy, time-consuming follow-through. Shrilynda’s threats fell into three basic types: idle threats made to illicit reactions, threats to be carried out at any cost, and threats forgotten the second the offender was out of sight.
Rin had personal experience with all three, and this boundary felt real.
“I—I do not know what will happen if I cross the river,” she finally broke the silence.
“We’re so close,” Alexander said wistfully. “Just beyond that hill are two enormous oak trees that look like they’re locked in battle, their branches intertwined.” He pointed. “There’s a hidden pond to the northeast with a red fish that leaps out to eat the bugs tempted to the low-hanging fruit of the pomegranate trees growing on the banks.”
Crystal Palace was close, close enough for Alexander to reach safely on his own.
“Maybe you should go, and—” she began.
“Even if I left and came back for you,” he cut her off abruptly, “we’d still have the same problem.”
“But what if—” This time she cut herself off. Having to deal with the river and being alone was too much.
“Really?” Chester complained nearby. “An entire garrison of Bellicus are terrified of you, and you’re suffering from gephyrophobia?”
“Very helpful, thank you,” Alexander snapped back. “It’s not the bridge that’s the problem.”
Alexander stepped onto the bridge, hopping a little to test its sturdiness. He spun to face her, resolution etched on his face.
“We could spend all night guessing what might happen. I don’t think the Malum are going to run the risk of killing you, and how they’d hurt you with a river, I couldn’t begin to guess. Maybe we’ll encounter something as mundane as a solid barrier, or maybe we’ll call their bluff or encounter worn out magic. Whatever the case, you have to cross to find out.”
“I know,” she said, but her feet did not budge.
“We’ve already been drugged, robbed, and very nearly taken hostage by thugs, so maybe we’ve used up all of the bad luck in store for us today.”
He held out his hand. “The second you feel like something is wrong, we can stop and turn around,” he promised.
She shuddered at the thought of going backward when she had come so far and realized she had to go on. She grasped the Prince’s waiting hand and stepped cautiously onto the solid, cold stones of the bridge. Nothing happened. She released a shaky breath and her other foot followed. She was standing on the bridge.
Alexander squeezed her hand. “So far, so good.”
For the last time, she contemplated the wisdom of going against a Malum threat, but the hope of being free won out. She had heard the Malum speak of Crystal Palace in angry whispers as a place they could not go, and she harbored the hope that if she could just reach the palace, she could be free of them forever. She tossed the rest of her bothersome worry out of her head, ignored the foreboding sense of unease in the pit of her stomach, and with renewed confidence, she took her first hesitant steps across the aged bridge.
Just when the opposite shore seemed almost as close as the shore behind her, Rin saw a flash as bright as lightning. She gasped and jumped back, scanning the darkness for the source. Immediately, she realized her eyes were still acclimated to the dark. What did this mean?
“What’s wrong, Princess,” Alexander asked abruptly.
“I do not know,” she answered honestly. “Did you see that?”
She shook her head and hoped this was evidence of a spell gone wrong. Staying here to find out would be a mistake. As they continued forward, Rin began to wonder if the bridge was swaying. Impossible, she thought with alarm. A bridge of solid stone did not sway. As her feet continued to propel her forward, she realized it was her own head that was swirling. The feeling grew more intense with each step, and the whirlpool in her brain picked up speed. Halfway across, she stumbled and seized the wooden railing of the bridge for support. It creaked in objection.
“A spell?” the Prince asked anxiously.
“Dizzy,” she gasped.
Alexander eyed the opposite shore longingly. “Can you make it across? Maybe the spell will only affect you over the river.”
She nodded, squeezing her eyes shut against the tempest raging in her head. She had to get across. Unfortunately, the next step she took almost sent her tumbling off the bridge.
“We’re going back,” Alexander insisted.
“No,” she cried in despair. “I cannot go back.”
“Then we go forward,” he sighed, wrapping an arm around her and helping her forward.
A few feet from the shore, her vision whirled to a blurry mish-mash of flying darkness. As her foot touched the grass on the opposite bank of the river, she slumped limply to the ground and was lost to a peaceful darkness.
No, wait. She strained to stay aware. The inky darkness was like a blanket, or more like a thick, smothering net under water. She could not see or move, but she could hear with some struggle. First, she heard a muffled cry and even felt something hard to describe. It was smothering her and speaking. Was she dying?
“Am I dead?” she asked frantically, but no sound came from her unresponsive lips.
She felt faint pressure and caught snatches of Alexander’s conversation with Chester.
That was comforting. She was still on the riverbank with Alexander. Chester said something, but she was unable to hear him. She fought against the muffling darkness, and the voices cleared.
Alexander was finishing a thought. “If I were the Malum, and I wanted to make sure Rin didn’t get away, I would definitely equip my magic barrier with a signal.”
Oh no, she had not considered this. Had she put the Prince in danger?
“I’d suggest we get out of here, then,” was Chester’s response.
“You’re not going to help me, are you?”
“Hadn’t crossed my mind, actually.”
“Up you go, Princess,” he told her.
She felt herself being gathered up and held close. Soon, she felt the swaying of movement, movement taking her closer to Crystal Palace. She would have breathed a sigh of relief if her body was responding. The effort of staying on the surface was exhausting, and being in Alexander’s arms was so peaceful, so she let the darkness suck her under.
A flash of lightning jolted Athena from her already troubled sleep. Her body responded instantly, sitting up and peering fruitlessly for the source of the brilliant light, while her surprised mind took its time shaking off the fuzzy confusion of sleep. On her order, her brain finally sorted through the possibilities laboriously. There was not a cloud in the sky; actual lightning was too remote a possibility. Besides, her eyes had been closed and she had heard no sound. This signal was a magical one. That flash was familiar. Very familiar. Reminiscent of the days of the great wars.
A beacon. That word shattered any remnants of sleep and tossed them from her suddenly alert mind.
The Sorceress shoved aside her warm down blankets and threw on clothes with the urgency this warning demanded. She knew by the drowsy stillness of the palace that the hour was late. Only a few complacent sentries wandered the halls and watched the perimeter of the palace, oblivious to trouble. They would be of little use to her, but precautions were prudent. She sent the nearby patrolling guards scurrying to lower the drawbridge and scout the immediate area before ordering her horse and Dmitri’s readied immediately. The remaining bewildered guard was sent to rouse Dmitri himself.
With smooth, decided steps, she made her way up the spiral staircase to the main sentry tower. Fully aware nothing would be visible to her eyes in the dark, she knew anything powerful enough to set off a beacon would be visible to her another way.
At the top of the watchtower, Athena was hit with a blast of clarity in the form of chilly night air. Taking in a deep breath of it, she reassured herself Crystal Palace and the entire surrounding Glade was protected from the dark magic of the Malum. From the earliest days of the rise of rogue magicians who sought to ally with Demons and disregard life to enhance their own power, the Naxturae had banished those forms of magic from their Glade. Of course, no level of protection could ensure safety from a crafty foe. Even though dark magic could not be used, a Malum infiltrator could cause death and destruction in more creative or more mundane ways. When full-out war erupted, a simple enchantment was put into place as an advanced warning system. Only a powerful bearer of magic could set off one of these beacons at the borders of the Glade, and since Athena was safe in her palace, there were only a few alternatives.
She shook her head in dismay at this last thought. Of those alternatives, one was the most likely and the least threatening. She had forgotten the most obvious solution to this puzzle, and she chided herself for her paranoia.
“Dmitri,” she greeted the prompt soldier before he could announce his arrival. “I begin to think I may have alarmed you for nothing.”
“You don’t overreact, my Queen,” he disagreed gruffly. “What is out there?”
“Someone with magic has crossed the boundary of the Glade.”
“You think the young Sorceress is returning home.”
“You see, I would have done better to consult with you than to let my own paranoia run rampant.”
Although it was much too dark to see anything in the distance besides shadowy trees half lit by the moonlight, the altitude gave her a sense of clarity. She closed her eyes and searched for the familiar glow of Serena. Nothing. The foundling Sorceress was not nearby. After a more careful search, she did find something unexpected and equally familiar: the faintest trace of the lost Kianne Prince.
This find was so surprising, she found herself peering into the distant darkness, looking for Alexander’s faint light. Of course she saw nothing now; her eyes were of no use. She redoubled her efforts at concentration, focusing in on the young Prince. The task was easy; in many ways, he was her closest living family. The bond was mainly sentimental, but from his studies, the Prince claimed he and Athena shared a “too many greats to count” Grandmother, so he called her his Aunt. His family tree did contain a few notable Sorceresses, and after the untimely deaths of his father and his sister, the Prince viewed Crystal Palace as his sanctuary away from home.
Even as a boy, Alexander had been sweet and charming, when he chose to be. He was a favorite of Athena’s, and her staff doted on the boy. It was common knowledge he had free run of the palace, and he took full advantage. Athena was certain the curious boy knew the rooms, passageways, and stairways of the castle better than she did. On more than one occasion, he had gone missing for hours only to be discovered curled up under a pile of books in a nook under a forgotten stairway.
Finding Alexander was a skill with which Athena had a great deal of practice. Right now, he was making his way straight toward her from the eastern hills. He would be entering the valley soon. He must be traveling with someone or something containing great power, but she could sense nothing from this distance. She was bothered by the implication, but she could do little from here.
“Alexander, what are you doing here?” she murmured aloud.
“The missing Kianne Prince set off an alarm?” Dmitri asked with justified confusion.
“I think not,” Athena replied, “but I intend to find out. The horses should be ready; we’ll need another.”
She swept down the stairs, Dmitri following.
“I’ll advise you not to come, Milady,” Dmitri said in a hollow, unconvincing tone.
Even in the midst of her rekindling anxiety, she stopped to appreciate and to be amused by Dmitri’s words and the way he spoke them. He knew her well enough to understand she would ignore any attempt to keep her out of harm’s way, but he felt compelled to protect her in spite of herself.
“If the Prince’s return is some sort of trap, I’d much rather set it off outside the palace grounds than inside its walls,” she justified. “I’m the only one who might be a match for any magical trouble; might as well take it by surprise.”
“And if the foe is of the non-magical variety?”
“I did wake you,” she answered innocently. “Besides, Dmitri, you know better than to argue military strategy with me.”
“Hrmph,” he grumbled in response. “In that case, my Queen, I would appreciate if you would wait to leave until I return with another horse.”
They parted at the bottom of the sentry tower. Dmitri gruffly gave a few orders to the curious watchman at its base. Even though his precautions were wise, and her few guards were of more value awake than asleep, she was now going to have to contend with an entire palace filled with panicked speculation upon her return.
She returned to her palace for a cloak suitable for late-night traveling, and for the second time, she found herself standing before the watchful eyes of Kalilya. Flickering torches were all that lit the entryway, and Kalilya’s portrait was masked in shadows.
“What an eventful day this is turning out to be, Lily.”
It seemed as if the bemused Queen might agree, but their burgeoning conversation was interrupted by Dmitri’s rapid return. She suspected he feared she might ride off on her own if he tarried.
While Athena’s horse galloped through the darkness, she focused in on Alexander. He was definitely not alone. With greater proximity, she was finally able to sense the possible source of the alarm. She picked out the familiar glow that indicated magic, but it was masked somehow, hidden, as if the light was a bright candle, and a worn basket had been placed on top of it. The light peeked through the small holes, and thin parts of the basket seemed to glow as well, but the light itself was still hidden. She was looking at some sort of masking spell that was shoddy or very old. What was being hidden from her, and why?
She and Alexander met each other at opposite ends of a large, clear expanse; she was lit up by moonlight, while Alexander was still bathed in shadow. She reined in her horse, and Dmitri followed suit.
“Aunt Athena,” he called to her. “Is that you?”
“Are you alone?” she asked him. “Are you safe?”
“No to the first,” he called, “and that second question is too complicated. I, personally, am not in any imminent danger I know about, but the likelihood of danger is high.”
He certainly sounded like himself. She spurred her horse forward to survey the situation.
A beleaguered Alexander was in possession of a prostrate girl, a Malum girl at that, Athena noted with her first glance. Disconcerting as this was, she felt another presence, absent of magic, but she saw no one else.
“Aunt Athena.” Alexander breathed a sigh of relief. “There are no words to describe how wonderful it is to be here. I need your help.”
“Alexander,” she finally spoke, “where shall I start?”
“It is such a long story,” he started for her, “and under any other circumstance I love long stories, but you need to help Rin.”
Dmitri looked to Athena in disapproving bewilderment. Athena had to agree. Alexander’s concern for the Malum girl was perplexing, almost as perplexing as his possession of said girl.
“Perhaps you can give me a few short answers to questions that deserve long answers first. Where have you been? Who is she? And who else is with you?”
“You certainly know how to pose complicated questions to the mentally drained,” he said with an exhausted sigh. “I’ve recently been the prisoner of the Malum. This is my adept liberator, Rin, who appears to be suffering the effects of a Malum curse at the moment. Oh, and Aunt Athena, Chester. Chester, Her Royal Highness, High Queen, Sorceress Athena. He’s invisible.” He gestured vaguely.
“Pleased to meet you,” Chester said dryly.
That explained little and opened up a vast sea of additional questions.
“There is no magic surrounding you,” she stated. “How—”
“We could spend all night stating facts I know, but I’m already tired of the game.” Chester cut her off. “I’ll just keep going while you deal with your more interesting problem over there.”
The Sorceress was at a loss for words. She let him walk away.
“I need to know if Rin is all right,” Alexander insisted doggedly.
He spread the girl’s cloak on the grassy ground and set her down gingerly, like she was made of porcelain rather than the most dangerous magic Athena had encountered in over a decade. Her dark hair spilled out on the ground, and her limbs dropped at her sides, limp and lifeless. Athena dismounted and approached cautiously. The only spell she could identify was the one partially shielding the girl’s magic from her. From this distance, however, no spell could totally hide the energy radiating from her like a bonfire. Powerful was an understatement. She knelt down at Rin’s side; curiosity winning out over caution.
Dmitri tensed. With his history, it was a testament to his self-control he had not sliced off this girl’s head the second he saw her. For his sake, she scanned the Prince for the effects of any strange spells that might be afflicting him and found nothing amiss, nothing magical anyway. Her Alexander was clearly afflicted by something. The darkness could not hide his visible attachment to the girl before them. He knelt next to her and held her hand, a helpless observer at the bedside of a sick patient.
“She freed you, you say, from the Malum.” She pried for information in a more customary way as she put a hand on Rin’s forehead, then felt her steady pulse.
“Yes, and saved my life several times over,” was his definitive answer. “We’ve been traveling for the past few days, and it would likely take me that long to fully explain the whole saga.”
He breathed deeply while rubbing the muscles in his arms. “Aunt Athena, I have lengthy, important answers to most of your questions, even the ones you don’t know to ask yet, but I need to know she’s safe first. And, simultaneously, which is in the same vein, is there anyone tracking us?”
“Nothing else magical or carrying magic is nearby,” she assured him. “I can tell by Dmitri’s disapproving glower that Rin is the most dangerous thing out here, but he should probably scan the area anyway.”
Dmitri took the hint and was on his horse in a flash to sweep their surroundings.
Athena completed her brief examination to the best of her ability in the dark. Rin was uninjured and still brimming with a powerful energy. There was dark magic clinging to her, but the dampening magic of the Glade was making short work of it. Before she allayed Alexander’s fears about his dark-haired companion, she thought through what would surely be his next request. Was she willing to bring this magical catastrophe in the making into Crystal Palace?
“She’s fine,” she told him finally.
He objected to her analysis. “If she’s fine, why doesn’t she wake up?”
“If we want the answer to that question, you’d better get her onto that horse before Dmitri returns.” She made her decision.
He stared at her for a moment before stating, “I have no inclination to object, but I did think you’d require a bit more convincing.”
That was the Prince Alexander she knew. He scooped Rin from the ground and managed to lay her on the extra horse’s back awkwardly—half seated, half drooping across the horse’s neck. He hopped up behind Rin and took care to make sure she was secure.
Painstakingly, they reached the summit of the last hill and were able to look down into the valley. The shape of a large castle was visible in the distance, adorned only by a path of lofty birch trees leading the way from the drawbridge to the palace gates. The calming turrets glistening in the moonlight helped steel her nerves against the unsettling bustle taking place in front of the palace steps in the dark. The late-night activity was reminiscent of night raids and the high alert of war. The patrols were reporting their lack of findings to Dmitri, who had preceded Athena and her bizarre entourage. She doubted the efficacy of their search efforts, as Chester was waiting at the palace steps.
Dmitri eyed Rin unhappily as he helped Athena from her horse.
“I know,” she responded to his wordless objections. “What would you have me do? Leave her out on the lawn?”
“There are other options,” he growled.
“I’d like to ask her a question or two before starting in on the dismemberment, Dmitri.”
Dmitri threw up his hands and went off to reposition guards to bring himself a little peace of mind.
She led Alexander and Chester through the hallways to the wing the Prince chose to stay in when he visited. This set of rooms was quiet and isolated from the bustle of the rest of the palace and would serve well to keep her questionable guests out of the way. She pointed out a room for Chester.
“Unless you, too, have a dilemma which requires my immediate attention,” she spoke to the figure, a disconcerting experience considering the compelling evidence from her eyes that he was not, in fact, in front of her.
“Not at all, Your Highness,” Chester chuckled. “At this point, I think I remain out of morbid curiosity. Into how much more trouble can these two logistically stumble?”
He did not wait for an answer; the door banged shut before her eyes.
Alexander followed Athena into another room; he had refused to relinquish his cargo to anyone else.
“I believe I shall save any further questioning until tomorrow. Perhaps we could all benefit from time to rest.”
“There is no way I could rest, Aunt Athena,” he argued.
“If I know you at all, dear boy, I know you need sleep. She will keep a few hours. I order you to rest, bathe, and change clothes in whatever order you choose. I will speak with you tomorrow morning.”
“But Aunt Athena—” he began to protest.
“Your charms are wasted here, young Prince,” she admonished firmly. “I need time to think, and you smell worse than geruk root.”
Alexander realized further protestation would fall on deaf ears, so he reluctantly deposited Rin on the bed.
“You kept me safe, and I will do the same for you, Princess,” he murmured to Rin, almost too quietly for even Athena’s sharp ears.
Only then would he allow himself to be ushered off to his own room.
Athena was fully aware her staff was awake and would only pretend to rest under great duress, so she chose to keep them busy instead. She fetched two of her maids and ordered the travel-worn girl washed and put to bed. They masked their delight at being given free rein to poke and prod their unusual visitor and scurried off to follow her instructions.
Dmitri had already ordered a guard placed inside the girl’s room and another at the door. They followed his orders a bit more uneasily than the maids. Athena could almost hear the rumors starting. The events of this evening were the most interesting topic of discussion in these walls since one of the cooks twisted her ankle on a flight of wet stairs.
Within the unexpected events of night, Athena found more than enough fodder for optimism. Prince Alexander had returned safely, and whether or not the Malum girl could be trusted, she presented a unique opportunity to gain insight into a ruthless enemy. With a renewed sense of hope, Athena ignored her own advice of rest to return to her study in search of what she needed.