Fire snorted, his eyes glowing red. I kicked him forward but he refused to budge. My Fae horse knew of danger long before I did, the color of his eyes indicating what lay ahead. I slid off his back, scanning across the still surface of the lake. The tower was now in sight. The route here had taken us through enchanted forests where we lost our way, and in and out of marshes that reeked of death. Fire had never once stumbled or stopped--until now.
“What now, beastie?” I whispered in his ear, pushing the hood of my cloak back to get a better view. He didn’t answer, but he understood. Our time together had proven that over and over. He lifted his head as though to sniff the air.
On the other side of the lake my destination stood dark and foreboding. The tower seemed close, but I knew it was not. This place was full of sorcery, distances shifting and changing as the sun and moon moved across the sky. The lake seemed innocent, its waters lapping gently against the shore. But I knew better. Spells old and new had been placed to keep intruders out. Not to heed this would put us in mortal danger.
The castle behind the tower lay quiet, but I could almost hear the swords being drawn, the intake of breath as my love’s captors prepared. I was sure they’d seen me riding along the lake edge in the early dusk. I imagined the soldiers within those dank walls, the clink of chain mail, and the king barking his orders.
And then I noticed what it was that Fire had picked up with his sensitive nose. A gibbet had been erected close to our side of the shore, a body swinging in the breeze. For one horrible second I thought it was Darvin. But I’d had no psychic sense that he was dead. No. It had been done to frighten Darvin’s followers away. I left my horse and worked my way through the thick underbrush toward the body.
I gagged as I drew close, the stench of death overpowering. Even with his flesh nearly picked clean by the feasting birds I could make out the familiar features. It was Brin, Darvin’s closest friend. I was crying before I knew it, my hatred of the man who put him there rising like bile in my throat. I wiped away tears and straightened my shoulders. I couldn’t allow feelings to weaken my will. There was no time to bury him so I used my knife to cut him down and covered him with my cape, saying the ancient prayer to send him speedily into his next life.
On the way back up the hill I turned toward the Groundling Mountains that crouched like a sleeping monster, scales rising from its back. The range lay some distance behind the spit of land that held the castle and the tower, the peaks white with snow. I’d considered escaping that way but on second thought did not want to get lost inside the intricate web of sorcery woven into the ridges and valleys. I’d heard too many stories related to disappearances, screams in the night that pointed to beings from the underworld.
It was deep night when I heard the horse whinny. Someone was out there, and not far from where the horse grazed. I quickly moved into the shadows and reached for the knife I kept in my boot.
“Peera, is that you?”
When I heard the familiar voice my heart slowed its staccato rhythm. I let out my held breath, my fingers relaxing on the handle of my blade. I shoved it back into my boot. “Caly? Where did you come from?”
Darvin’s younger sister appeared from under the trees to my left, soft blonde curls in sharp contrast to my dark tangle that hung messily around my dirty face. Her blue eyes were pools of darkness, a frown of worry between her brows. “They will move Darvin tomorrow, Peera. I heard them talking while I was in the kitchens.”
“Where will they take him?”
“Into the mountains—your father knows you’re here.”
My father, the king. I gathered my long hair back and looked down at my tattered wool skirt, the brambles that still clung to the worn material. I pulled at one, trying to loosen its hold as I took in what Caly had said. “I will have to manage my rescue before that happens,” I muttered with a lot more bravado than I felt. It wouldn’t do to let Caly know how frightened I was. She was very young and had put herself in a dangerous position to be my spy. My father’s supreme need to vex me had caused him to bring my husband’s sister into his employ. He hoped she would do something wrong so he could use her as an example. If he learned of her treachery she would hang next to Brin.
My father hadn’t always been like this. My mother’s death had changed him from a decent king into a tyrant. I was fourteen when I left the castle and hadn’t been back in ten years. And if I pulled this off it would be more years than that before I returned again.
“How will you get there?” I heard Caly ask, her voice shaking with worry. “The gates are locked. The tower has guards everywhere. And between here and there--”
“Yes,” I snapped before I could stop myself. I softened my tone. “I know all about the guards, Caly.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that--”
“…you don’t want to lose your brother.” I moved forward to place my arm around her narrow shoulders. “With you here we are bound to find a way.”
“There is only one way in. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. They’ve planted brambleroot along the other paths. They are impassable now.”
Brambleroot was a nasty plant that twined itself around trees, growing quickly outward to cover the ground with thorns that poisoned all who got caught up in their choking vines. This was not good news. I went to sit on a rock, my mind turning this way and that. “Rest now, Caly. I hope to have an answer soon.” I pointed to the blanket I’d placed in the soft grass. “Wrap yourself up in that—it’s growing colder by the minute.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t plan to sleep. It will take all my concentration to link my mind with Darvin’s and find a way into the tower.” I shivered as an icy wind slid along my neck as though in reaction to my words. The lake knew I was here, as well as my father, who knew exactly how to bring me running. He held me responsible for my mother’s death, his intention to punish me. In truth he was right. If it hadn’t been for me, my mother wouldn’t have stayed. Her artistic nature did not lend itself to the role of queen. No wonder she starved herself, wasting away in front of our eyes. Her last words to me had been, “Take yourself away from here before your spirit is crushed.”
Darvin was a childhood friend, and when I ran away after my mother’s death it was his family who took me in and hid me from the king. We married the year I turned eighteen. Darvin was a wizard and a visionary, and when my father began his systematic enslavement of his subjects my husband decided to fight back. He began a movement to reverse what my father had wrested from the people—their livelihoods, their lands. But now my husband’s lofty plans had been driven to ground. The brutality of my father’s soldiers struck fear into the hearts of Darvin’s followers. Out of hundreds there was barely anyone willing to face down the king and his minions. It seemed impossible that not one of my father’s men understood that it was Darvin’s magic that had given the king his sudden strength. In my father’s hands Darvin’s abilities had been turned into an instrument of evil.
I pictured the last time I’d spoken to the man who I’d once proudly called father. We’d had a screaming fight about the death of my mother and how his cruelty had contributed to her failing health. He disagreed, saying that she was weak and unfit to be queen. And as to me, he was sick to death with what I stood for. My only regret the day I left was my brother. He was still young and hadn’t yet been molded into my father’s image. I’d considered his rescue as well, but I knew the king kept Trenner close by his side. Such folly would only insure my capture.
My thoughts returned to the present, my gaze moving across the darkness that was the lake. An ancient creature lived within these waters; she’d been asleep for a hundred years or more. Her loyalties were not run by petty politics. For one silly moment I wondered if I could coax her to come to my aid, but I dismissed it. My route lay through the marsh where serpents coiled in wait. The horse would not venture there. I would have to go on foot.
Darvin, can you hear me? I plan to rescue you tonight.
I hear you, but my power has been drained. I’m chained to the wall, Peera. You will need the key.
When I tried to reach him a second time there was no answer. A frisson of fear moved up both my arms and slithered along my spine. Aside from Caly and Fire I was on my own. I closed my eyes and let my mind drift across the dark water. Will you help me, creature of the deep? There was no answer to this fairytale plea. A few moments later lightning split the darkness in a jagged display that hurt my eyes, thunder rumbling behind it. Something in the depths stirred.
When I opened my eyes again there she was, rising from the water like an awakening dragon. I ran toward the lake, forgetting my horse and Caly in my haste to reach her before she disappeared again. Her dark eyes held wisdom I could only guess at, lake water coursing off her glistening scales. Her neck was long and sinuous, waving from side to side as she watched me. I held up my skirts and rushed into the cold water to climb onto her back.
It felt like an impossible dream as we moved swiftly toward the tower. When we reached the shore she paused only long enough for me to slide off. I turned to say some word of thanks, but she had already sunk below the surface, bubbles rising as she descended into the deep. The gibbous moon hid behind clouds, leaving me in shadow. I stood very still listening to the night and what lay behind the silence. A night bird let out a long mournful call, but other than that all was quiet. I stared at the black tower rising straight up. No vines grew there, nothing for my feet to cling to. But then my heart lifted as I spied the pale oval peering down from a window at the highest point. “Darvin?” I whispered. He was too far away to hear me, but I could see his teeth flash white as he smiled. Even if I managed to climb those walls I would still need the key to unlock his chains. This rescue had to be completed before first light.
I moved toward the tower and searched along the bottom edge for rungs, vines—anything that would give me a foothold. But the entire surface was made of smooth black stone without any indentations, grooves or notches. On the side closest to the castle was the gatehouse, and in the gatehouse stood a guard. He would have the keys.
I appeared abruptly out of the dark, startling him. And when I hit him on the side of the head with the oak limb I’d picked up he crumpled to the floor. I searched quickly through his pockets but found no keys. But after another look around I found a key ring full of keys hanging on a hook embedded in the wall. I grabbed it and ran for the tower. It took me three tries before I found the one that unlocked the gate leading into the tower, but after that I was running swiftly up the spiraling stairs, my breath coming in gasps. By the time I reached the door at the top I could barely breathe.
“Peera—is that you?”
“Yes,” I managed to choke out. But now I could hear the guard moving up the stairs behind me. With my hands trembling I fit one key after the other into the lock, finally finding the correct one. I hurtled through the open door, running straight into Darvin’s arms. He bent his head to mine. “I knew you’d do it,” he whispered into my hair.
I pulled away and closed the door, fitting the key into the lock and turning it. “That will give us a moment,” I said, my gaze meeting his. His skin was alabaster in the silvery light, cheekbones jutting from his ravaged face. One arm was stretched behind him and chained, the other around my waist. I moved to the wall and began fitting one key after the other into the lock. “None of them work!” I cried in panic. The guard had reached the door and was pounding on it and yelling.
He took the key ring from my trembling hands. “One of them must be the right one.” He fitted each one in, just as I had, finally sitting back on his haunches. He shook his head, staring at me.
“You’ll do best to open this door!” the guard shouted. “The key you need isn’t on that ring.”
“Where is it?” I asked stupidly.
“Wouldn’t you like to know? Now open this door!”
I looked at Darvin. “He wears it around his neck.”
Darvin smiled, very aware of my sudden flashes of insight. “Open the door and let him come in.”
When I fitted the key into the lock and swung the door wide, the guard rushed in, his face sweaty and darkened by rage. “You little—“
But before he could grab me Darvin swung his fist down on top of the man’s head. He fell like a toppled tree. The piece of leather holding the key was indeed around his neck. I yanked it off and fitted it into the lock holding Darvin’s chains, releasing him. He rubbed his bloodied wrist, his eyes soft in the early morning light.
He was moving toward me when I came to my senses, realizing that dawn was upon us. “We don’t have time to moon about,” I said. The castle would certainly be coming alive any moment. I hurried through the open doorway heading for the staircase, but soon realized that Darvin was not behind me. When I turned he was hanging onto the wall, his legs shaking. I put an arm around him and helped him take the stairs, oh so slowly—too slowly. And the guard from above was awake and fast approaching, his angry voice echoing off the stone. In a minute other guards would come and we’d be trapped. And that’s when I heard them below us.
“I say we go back up,” Darvin gasped, his face as white as chalk.
HIs captivity had taken a terrible toll. “What will that do for us?”
“If we can get past the one guard we can lock ourselves in. Maybe we can pitch ourselves into the lake. The window is wide enough.”
Our eyes met, understanding moving between us. “Can you deal with the guard?” I whispered.
“If I catch him coming around a corner, yes.”
We waited quietly, listening to the guard’s heavy footfalls descending as the ones from below pounded upward. I watched Darvin’s face for signs of fear, but all I noticed was his usual resolute expression, his good hand raised to knock the guard flat when he came around the bend. A second later it happened, the guard flailing as Darvin tripped him and then landed a heavy blow on his back. I watched the man roll down the stairwell, his head slamming into the stone where he lay without moving. Darvin reached for my hand and we climbed back up as quickly as we could. By now the guards had discovered the inert body of their compatriot, their angry shouting reaching our ears as we rushed back into the tiny room. I locked the door with shaking fingers. When I turned Darvin was already at the window.
“We will never survive that,” I muttered, looking down.
“Ye have little faith,” Darvin said, pointing. And that’s when I saw her waiting for us.
We were bruised by the fall, wet and shivering when the creature transported us across the lake. Tears filled my eyes as the ancient beast turned her gaze to mine. “Thank you,” I whispered. And then she was gone, her long tail flicking once before vanishing beneath the surface. I had a feeling she would not be seen again for a very long time.
Behind me Caly was hugging her brother, both of them crying. “I don’t know how you did it,” Caly mumbled. “And what was that thing?”
I stared toward the lake that seemed so calm and serene. “She is a magical creature that awakened just in time to save us.”
Fire whinnied, as if to say ‘it’s time to go’. All three of us climbed up on his back, but he didn’t seem to mind, his hooves flying across the ground as he took us away from the castle, the lake, and the king.