“Al?” Anladet asked softly.
He hadn’t moved, hadn’t said anything in the five minutes since she had told him. He just stared into the fire, tapping his foot lightly.
“I suppose this is my first lesson in being hoodwinked, then?” he spat.
“We could have parted ways without you ever knowing. You’re the one who decided to bind us.”
“Did I? Did I, though?” He finally looked at her, his dark eyes flashing with anger. “Have you been pulling my strings this entire time?”
“No,” Anladet said.
“Is that how you knew I was being honest? Because you used your magic on me, forcing me to say whatever you wanted me to?”
She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. Yes, she had taken advantage of the situation. She felt a badly about that, especially since had known Al was going to react emotionally. But, as far as she knew, she hadn’t used magic nor her manipulative skills on Al. As she had said, he was the one who had pushed to bind them together. She had only agreed with his proposal.
“It’s latent, Al. When someone speaks, their voice carries a taste to their words. I’m pretty good at telling a lie from the truth most of the time, though it’s never a simple thing. Like, for instance, what you’ve told me about your past haven’t been lies, but they’re missing so much to them that it’s hard to get a truthful picture about what happened to you. Which is fine,” she added quickly. “We obviously both have secrets.”
When he said nothing, she continued. “I haven’t used my magic on you. Not once, or else I would know things about you. Like, why you say you’re on vacation from your wife and kid, but you don’t wear your wedding band nor do you have any definite plans for going home. Again, that’s your business. Should you ever come to trust me, you’ll tell me.”
He scoffed, but said nothing. She sighed again, this time finding it hard to remain placid. Her throat burned and her chest felt heavy. “I have to fight every moment of every day not to use my magic. Do you know how easy it would be for me to start whispering in people’s ears and manipulate them into doing whatever I wanted? It’s so damned unfair how easy it is. All I need to do is find the right man or woman to give me money, someone rich who wouldn’t miss ten gold. But, that’s robbery. I’m not sticking a knife into their sides and demanding their purse or their life, but it’s the same thing. And I don’t want to rob people. I want to be a good person.”
“I’m finding that hard to believe.”
This time she let her sigh out loudly as she blinked the tears of frustration from the corners of her eyes. “Al, listen to me, please. Believe me when I say I can use magic to get whatever I want in this world, but I don’t. Why would I be reading fortunes in a bar in the byroads of Sharka if I could get what I wanted by using magic? Why would I bus tables and sweep floors for coppers if I was using my power?”
“I should turn you in when we’re done.”
Anla let out a growl from deep in her throat that actually startled Al. “Fine, hate me, Al. Hate me because my father was a human and my mother was an elf and they loved each other. Hate me because I have magic that I know very little about that gives me the ability to rule a world of mindless puppets, should I ever want to stop living on the streets, skipping meals and sleeping in the rain. Hate me if you want, I don’t care anymore. But, stop being stupid. If you turn me in, they’ll kill me or jail me. You’ll have to spend a year rooted in one spot or you’ll join me in the afterlife.”
Al rested his head on his knees for a moment. “Why did you even tell me?”
“I don’t know,” she said softly. “I thought it would be nice to tell someone, once. I had hoped that, over the course of a year, we’d become friends. And you don’t keep secrets from friends. That’s how you build trust in one another.”
“I can’t trust you,” he said, finally looking at her. “How the hell would I ever be sure you weren’t manipulating me?”
“The damned binding, Al! That’s why I told you! I’m not going to manipulate someone who I have to stay by for one year. You’ve already asked questions about how I can track the group. It was only a matter of time before you found out anyway.”
“You’re right. We have to stay together for one year. But I can still make your life really difficult. If I don’t move, you don’t move.”
“If you don’t move, you die. Do you plan on setting up a home and a garden in the middle of a forest?” She paused, noting her bitter tone and rethought her approach. This wasn’t going well. “You’re angry, Al, I get that. I’ve lost your trust. If I ever get it back, it will be after some time and proof that I am a good person. Right now, though, there’s something going on that’s bigger than your anger towards me. Can you set that aside until we find these cultists, for the girl who needs us? We need to discuss a plan and we won’t have a good one if you’re still upset with me.”
“Why? Can’t you just command them all to give the lady up and we’ll be on our way?”
“I can only use it on one person at a time. If I told one of the men to grab her and give her to us, it would arouse the suspicions of the remaining members. I also can’t guarantee it will work perfectly. I have to be extremely careful in what I say.”
“Why is that?”
Anla relaxed a little. His tone had shifted from accusation and vehemence to intrigue. It was not perfect, but better. “Well, I’ve seen situations where it’s gone amiss. If I say, ‘Turn around and walk away from me’, that man may never stop walking. If I say, ‘Give me all your money’, that man will hunt me down every time he gets more. If I were to say to these men, ‘Let the girl go and stay here until we’re done bringing her to safety’, even that won’t work. They won’t know when that is and they’ll stay there until they starve to death.”
“So? They’re kidnappers who are going to kill an innocent child. I say let them die.”
Anladet pressed her lips together. “Al, have you ever killed anyone?”
“Talk with me again of it if you ever do. Until then, don’t judge me when I want to keep life sacred.”
She felt weary all at once. The conversation was draining for her, especially when she remembered the past. “I think it’s best if we just get a few hours of sleep before we continue. We have tonight and the morning, and one more day to catch up with them. I know their voices are getting louder, fresher, but I don’t want to miss them.”
“You think we might?”
“There are many of them, so there are many voices, many conversations and volumes. I’ve heard a few of them speak of an island. I don’t know what that means.”
Al sucked in air through his teeth. “I suspect this trail will take us to the Great Gheny Bay. There are a few islands not too far off the shore.”
“So, therefore, we need to get to them before they take off towards one of them, leaving us stranded on shore. We need to sleep, but we can’t sleep for more than a few hours.”
Anla had hoped Al was a reasonable person, someone who got over indignations and setbacks quickly. When several minutes had passed and he was still outside the tent, she knew he wasn’t that type of man. “Al. Please,” she said, opening the flap. “You need to be in the best condition a few hours of sleep will give you. Can’t it be part of our truce?”
“I’m fine out here, thank you.”
Anla let out her breath slowly and settled in under both the blankets. There wasn’t anything she could do, or more specifically would do, with an obstinate man.
Al was groggy when Anla woke him a few hours later. They snuffed out the fire and continued on until dawn came, led by Al’s acute sense of sight. They broke for breakfast, then later lunch before they slept for a few hours again.
They didn’t speak. Al was either still fuming or plotting out how to get around things, either by breaking the binding or by working around her magic. Either way, Anla appreciated the quiet. It allowed her to listen to more conversations to piece together
A light rain began in the late afternoon, a double issue for them. Besides the discomfort of being wet, the storm muffled any sound she picked up, dulling that sense for her. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have said it was luck that made them miss the guard that was positioned on the road.
Al caught the movement and pushed Anla into bushes before they were spotted. She sputtered for a moment, thinking he had reached his crazed state again. “Guard,” he whispered.
She turned, untangling herself. She gave him a quick nod of thanks and closed her eyes to concentrate. He was up ahead, moving across the road and slightly into the woods on either side, then turning back. She thought it was a pointless patrol against any ranger or woodsman who had discovered their tracks and would rather sneak around him than confront him. Then again, maybe he was guarding the road while there were others concealed in the forest. She wouldn’t know until they stumbled upon them, too.
Al had reached the same conclusion. “You’re going to have to use your craft,” he said in a low rumble. “Can you get him to tell you whatever you want?”
Her stomach soured. She knew it was going to come down to her using her magic to help the lady. “Yes, I just need to be careful with what I say.”
“It needs to be ironclad, like a contract?” She nodded. “Well, at least I can help out with that.”
Despite not wanting to aggravate Al further, she used another one of her tricks: sound muffling. They spoke freely of their plans without worry of anyone hearing them. She had come across this ability when she had once needed to hide somewhere from a group of people who were looking for her. The memory caused her to flinch, but she put it out of her mind quickly, especially since Al’s mood had improved. He probably still resented the situation, but for the moment he was distracted by the planning to say anything spiteful to her.
.She silenced their footsteps as they approached the guard from behind and either side. Al was there with his knife should she botch the plan. The guard stood still for a few moments, his head moving back and forth. He must have caught her movement out of the corner of his eye because he turned to face her, surprise written on his face.
“Gguardd, be quiet and don’t leave your spot while we’re talking” she said. The guard froze. “Tell me specifically where they are keeping the Lady Ssilfaa.”
“She’s being kept in a tent marked with a sun.”
“Gguardd, where is tthatt?”
“In the part of the camp farthest from us, closest to the beach.”
“Gguardd, how many men are with yyouu?”
“There are eleven others, besides myself and the duke’s daughter.”
“Gguardd, what do you plan on doing with the lladyy?”
“Tomorrow, at noon, we will sacrifice her so that we may drink her blood and become royalty. It is said that those with noble blood in them become His children. We wish to serve Him as regal Aps, a brotherhood of Magrithon’s followers devoted solely to His cause.”
Anladet went on to ask him about all the details Al had suggested: sleeping patterns, where specifically the lady was in relation to their position, any gatherings they would have, etc. While she did this, Al stood transfixed on the situation for two reasons. The first was watching Anladet work. He had thought things might be very proper, with her giving orders in a formal way and the guard staring blankly ahead, but it was actually quite a passionate experience. The man seemed to be just shy of ecstatic. He was pleased every time he answered her and almost moaning with pleasure when she gave even a tiny word of encouragement. His original assessment of her being a puppeteer seemed accurate; he swayed as she walked, leaning slightly with his body as she moved back and forth behind him. At her height, she needed to push his shoulder down to reach his ear. He sighed deeply every time she touched him.
The second thing that stunned him was the sheer stupidity of the group’s plot. Absolutely, mind-numbingly idiotic. The Divine Bestowal had been in place for millennia. Did they not think someone would have realized by now that everyone could be part-god if they only drank the peerage’s blood? The benefits royalty received, those gifts like limited clairvoyancy, the devotion of the pious clergy, and excellent social memory, had never shown in anyone that had tried. Morons.
“Gguardd, when I finish speaking, you will find a place to sleep and do so until the sun rises. You will forget our conversation or what you were doing involving Lady Ssilfaa.”
The guard turned heel and began to walk into camp. Anladet sucked in her breath and crept quietly to Alpine. “I messed up,” she whispered.
“I told him to find a place to sleep. He went back to his tent.”
“Okay, okay. We’ll have to wait and see if your friend causes suspicion.”
They ducked low and kept behind the trees and bushes as much as they could, reassured that at least they wouldn’t bump into another guard. The cult was hard to miss; they were sitting around a fire, listening to their leader pontificate about Magrithon. He faced away from a tent that stood in the middle of the beach, occasionally gesturing to it. Luckily, none of them noticed when one of their members entered a tent behind them. Then again, being so close to twilight, maybe they didn’t realize who it was and weren’t surprised people were retiring early.
Anladet sighed in frustration. “How are we going to get to her? We’d be completely exposed.”
“Shh, okay, let me think.” Al rubbed his face for a few minutes. “As a baerd, can you control sound or just manipulate people?”
She ignored his tone. “I can shift how people hear things.”
“Could you distract the followers somehow? Pretend to be a pack of wolves?”
“I think that’s a bit beyond me at this point. I’d just sound like a person pretending to be a wolf.”
“Okay, how about…could you pretend to be Magrithon? Tell them to let her go?”
“I’d sound like a woman with a deep voice. I mean, I think I could, but don’t you think it would be risky? What if they don’t believe me?”
“Let’s put that on a shelf for a moment, then. What else can you do, other than force people to do things they don’t want to?”
Anladet’s expression soured, but she again ignored it, not wanting to fight with Al at such a crucial time. “I can tell when someone’s lying or hiding something when they speak. I can hear sounds long after they’re made; that’s how I was able to find the group and follow them. I can direct messages to people across great distances. I can dampen sound or amplify it. I can create-”
“Wait, that ‘direct messages’ thing. Could you tell the lady to sneak out the back of the tent? Have her wade out and dampen her sound, then swim low over to us?”
“I can swim to her, Al. Maybe I can meet her in the water and help her, in case she can’t.” She rolled her shoulders. “I’ll give it a shot, but if there’s someone else in that tent with her, I might spoil things.”
The two moved to the edge of the beach. It was mostly large pebbles and rocks edged with trees and bushes, making it easier to conceal themselves. She knelt down in a patch of dirt and cupped her hands to make a cone around her mouth. “Lady Silfa, can you hear me?” Her eyes winced as she tried to hear her. “Between the rain and the man in front of the fire, there’s too much noise. I can’t focus on her. I think they’ve gagged her.”
“I can help you out there. Tell her to make one noise for yes and two for no.”
Anla tried once more. “She can hear you,” he said, “She’s gagged and bound, as far as I can tell, but I can’t hear anyone else inside.” He made a quick count. “I see eleven at the fire, so I think we’re safe.”
“Lady Silfa, we’re here to rescue you. We need you to be quiet and listen. Can you do that?”
“She says yes.”
“Okay, Lady Silfa, can you sneak out of your tent from the back towards the water?”
“A lot of mumbling.”
“We know you’re bound. Can you wiggle out the back?”
“She says yes.”
“Lady Silfa, I need you to be brave and swim as far out as you can. I’m going to meet you in the water and we’ll get to safety together. Can you do that?”
“She says yes again.”
Anladet put her hands down. “Can I borrow your knife? Thank you. Keep your eyes and ears on the cultists, in case someone notices us.”
“Good luck,” he said, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder, but yanking it away quickly.
Anla held the knife between her teeth and climbed into the water from the grass. She waded low, scooping her arms in circular motions. The water was salty, as the bay was part of the Gamik Sea, but being so far away from the ocean the waves were merely gentle laps against the shore. She dampened the sound in the area immediately around her, hoping the fire would blind anyone looking to the beach.
The girl had wiggled her way as far into the water as she could by the time Anladet got to her. She was already struggling to keep her head above the water as the peaceful waves threatened to drag her in and down. Anla placed the bubble of silence around them, immediately cutting the bonds to the girl’s shaking hands. She pushed herself up from the beach and tried untying the gag with no success. Anla unbound her feet, then slit the gag.
“Lady Silfa,” she said, holding her face between her hands. “I’m Anladet and I’m here to rescue you. We need to get going. Can you swim?”
The child started to cry, louder and louder. “Mama!” she said in between her sobs.
Anladet flinched. “Please, I need you to be quiet or else they might find us.”
Silfa continued to cry out for her mother in a primal cry. Al watched them as well as he could from his spot. Anladet’s face was strained, her teeth biting the knife hard. He thought she might have cut herself deeply on a rock or with the knife.
The girl clung to Anladet’s back like a starfish in a tidal pool. When they got to Alpine, tears were streaming down her face. “Take her, Al. I…I can’t…I can’t anymore.”
Al managed to pry the lady off of Anla’s back, hugging her to his front. “Hi, Lady Silfa, I’m Alpine,” he tried, but she still cried out for her mother. “Come on, Anladet, we need to get moving.”
Anla nodded and took a deep breath, pulling herself up and stumbling to the nearest tree. She wiped her face, put on her pack, and held a length of rope Al had tied to his own backpack. “Lead us.”