Raulin awoke to two men yelling, one flailing to get out of the fire and the other standing and backing away from the first. He was on his feet in less than a second, making a quick decision to help Al out of the embers and to also make sure he didn’t move closer to Sakilei.
“What the hell just happened?” he asked, pressing his foot into Al’s chest.
“He stabbed me,” Sakilei said, taking off his shirt. Even in the dim light Raulin could see a dark wound on his chest and blood trickling down his torso.
“Wizard, explain yourself.”
“I had to,” he began, his voice feverish. “He was going to take my place. Four people, five here, it was too perfect with you hating. Nice timing; I wonder if it wasn’t planned from the start. That makes sense. I think the Twelve are in on this. They’re moving us around like chess pieces, the king, the queen, the knight, the bishop. Are we all red or all black, though, is the real question. ”
“What are you rambling about?” he asked, holding Al’s face still with his hands. His eyes were wild, darting about in all directions. He licked his lips and continued his fast-paced diatribe on fate, chess, and whatever detritus his mind collected and added to his ramblings.
By this time, Anla had moved to Sakilei’s side with her water pouch. Tel was wisely stoking the fire, sensing a long night ahead. “What did he stab you with?” she asked.
“That,” he said, pointing to a silver object on the ground. Anla picked it up and held it up to examine.
“A butter knife?”
Sakilei looked down, then asked for the item. He stared at it, then said, “That strange little man stabbed me with a butter knife. Why?”
Anla moved over to Al’s side, who was still babbling about the destinies found on gaming boards. “I need to see if he burned his back,” she said to Raulin, who moved off his chest and helped nudge Al to his side. “His shirt is burnt, but it’s hard to tell with his dark skin whether or not he was hurt.” She ran her fingers lightly over his skin. “I don’t feel any hot patches.”
Raulin knelt next to Al and balled his shirt in his fist. “Wizard, look at me. Why did you stab Sakilei?”
“I struck before you struck. I kill him, you can’t have your new fourth. You kill me, you have your new fourth.”
“You thought we were going to kill you and replace you with Sakilei?” he asked, astonished.
“You need four. I am no longer with you. I am outside the circle. He is inside, speaking in comforting tongues with Anla and Tel. You’ve been plotting for some time now. I struck before you could strike.”
“What is wrong with you? You’ve been acting strangely for weeks now, ever since we left Whitney. You turn your back on Anla and try to kill someone we just met, with a butter knife of all things.”
“Tel takes the cleavers and puts them in his bag. I forgot.”
“Well, you had an ax, though I’m glad you didn’t use it.”
Al shook his head. “The Twelve are involved. Skethik wanted me to have the ax. To kill. Has to be someone important, not him. I think it’s a king.”
Raulin dropped his hand from Al’s shirt and moved back, startled for a moment. “Tel? We need to find a place to hold him until we figure out what to do.”
The two took Al by the arms and found a large enough tree to put him against. Within a few minutes, vines had crawled around Al’s body holding him in place. He seemed fine with this at first, but after a few minutes he began shouting for them to let him go.
“I need air! I can’t breathe!” he yelled, hyperventilating. “Let me go!” After a brief respite, he began laughing maniacally at the top of his lungs.
“Could one of you baerds take care of that?” Raulin asked. A few moments later the yells and laughter from Al were snuffed out and the forest was quiet again. “Sakilei, he attacked and hurt you. What are your thoughts on the situation?”
“I’ll live,” he said, absently fingering the dressing Anla had made for him. “Your man seems to be going through something. I think it would be unfair to punish him, like kicking a toothless dog for gumming your leg.”
“He hardly ‘gummed’ your chest, though.”
Sakilei shrugged. “So long as he stays away from me and you can guarantee that, I don’t want any revenge or justice.”
“Thank you,” Raulin said. “Even though he’s not himself right now, he’s still one of us. It makes things easier if we don’t have to deal with the law. Now, do we have any ideas as to what’s going on?”
When no one spoke up, he said, “For now, then, we need to keep him under supervision. I don’t want him to try to jump Sakilei again, or any of us. I know we’re a little rattled, but I think we should try to get some sleep. We can talk more in the morning and come up with a plan.”
It took Anla a little while to fall asleep. She kept feeling like there was something she was missing, something that made sense of the whole thing. Instead she drifted off and woke up before the others, when the sky was still gray and the fire down to embers. She gently disentangled herself from Raulin’s arms and went to see Al.
She hoped that things would be back to normal, so she could confront him more civilly. His betrayal still hurt, but she had remembered at some point that the chalice was meant to keep them together until a kinship was achieved. (The book wasn’t clear on what exactly passed for a strong bond, but she was hoping that civility would be enough.) Where she and he were right now was a step back from the end goal. She was willing to swallow her pride if it meant helping their relationship.
If only she could reach him somehow, make him trust that she was responsible with her powers. He didn’t know how many times she had to fight with herself not to use her magic. Life would be so easy with her controlling people, having slaves do her bidding, bring her money, kill who she wanted to kill. It would be so easy for her to slip into that again…
She looked past the brush at the tree where Al was, or should have been. The vines around the tree trunk were snapped and he was gone. She scanned the area quickly, to see if he had passed out somewhere, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The trees were still more green than in foliage here, but there were enough leaves on the forest floor to make a blanket. She went to the tree and listened for the sounds of a man rustling as he walked. There, about an hour ago, was a shuffling sound that started with a strained groan, several snaps, a thud, and then scraping that led away from the tree. And, if the light was just a little better, she could have seen the trail he had taken.
His pace was plodding and unsure. He stopped every fifty feet or so, turning from side-to-side before continuing onward. Was this a trap? Where was he going?
She almost gasped when she finally saw him standing in front of a cliff, a ledge that stretched out over a small valley. He wasn’t holding anything that she could see and he was facing away from her.
“Al?” He barely registered her presence. “Al, what’s going on?”
“It’s time,” he said, quietly but assuredly.
“Time for what?”
In response, he nodded once towards the dawning sky in front of him. “You can have my things. Maybe you can find a buyer for the inkwell. I hoped to return what’s inside to Arvonne, but not now.”
“Al, I don’t want your inkwell or your things. I want to talk to you.” She tried to move forward but he held out his hand to stop her, then shook his head.
She had to strain to hear him, he was so quiet. “I’ve been thinking all night and I realized that I was wrong. I was so worried about when you were going to kill me that I didn’t stop to ask whether you should or not. Now, it’s clear to me that you chose the right thing to do.”
“Al, please listen to me. We never had any intention of killing you. Never. “
He turned back to the dawn, his thick, black hair swaying in the breeze. “Then you don’t understand what I understand. Everything seems so clear to me now. I have to die to free you three, so that you can continue on with Sakilei. I’m over the anger and fear I had about it.”
“Al, no,” she said. She had hoped so badly that by standing in front of the cliff he was just being contemplative. Now that he had admitted it, she began to panic. “Please. You’re not well. You need to come back to camp and we can talk about this. Sakilei isn’t mad at you. No one is. We’ll bring you to Kikiyan and we’ll have someone there figure out what’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I understand things better than I ever have. And this needs to happen.” He took one step closer, looking over the side. “I should admit that it’s not just me being a martyr to this cause. I’m…tired. And I have nothing to lose. I’m volunteering to free us all from this arrangement and I hope things are better with Sakilei. “Tell him I’m sorry. Tell everyone I’m sorry, for everything.”
“Al, no!” She didn’t care if he wanted her back, she ran to him.
“I’m sorry,” he said once more and stepped over the edge.