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Iceblade: Chapter 12

I RUN BACK TO THE CAMP until I can get a good sightline across the clearing from the concealment of a broad oak trunk.

Brac and Marin are fighting back to back against six heavily-armed Rapathians and for a moment I’m transfixed by the confident way they move. It is as if they are still in the training cave at Maratic, going through the forms in a coordinated dance so intuitive and perfect that no more than two of the attackers can move anywhere near them without getting in each other’s way.

I can almost feel the humming intensity of Maratic’s power connecting their thoughts and movements and a sudden wave of loneliness washes over me with the awareness of what I have been missing in the way I use the power I have. Perhaps I should say the way it uses me. I know I can’t go in there to help them without that sense of connection. I’ll simply get in their way and mess up that perfect synchronicity.

Quietly, I sheath crysteel at my back and nock an arrow. Somehow it feels easier to judge the pattern of movement from over here and see the places where I can take out an attacker without the risk of either Marin or Brac moving unexpectedly into shot.

By the time I have two of the enemy on the ground, the others have dealt with the rest and Marin is standing over the prone form of the last survivor, asking questions in perfect Rapathian. Brac moves away to check on Deris, motioning me to stay back and keep watch. Even with my limited understanding I can follow what Marin is saying. The familiar names make the exchange self-evident.

“Who do you serve? Purmut or Farang?”

The wounded soldier looks puzzled. He is probably younger than I am, his features tense with the pain of the bloody gash across his stomach, struggling with the confusion of a question that must seem obvious to him. Marin tries again.

“Do you serve the Emperor or Farang?”

“Only the Emperor. I have sworn in blood…” His voice trails off. He makes another defiant effort to speak, perhaps worried that his more immediate orders may have called his loyalty into question. “We carry out the traitor’s instructions, then we report back to General Akadian.”

Marin steps back, apparently satisfied that he is not going to get any further useful information from someone so far down the chain of command.

I know it will take at least a day to die from that wound and for a moment I think Marin intends to just leave him there. Then he picks up the heavy Rapathian sword and lays it in the young soldier’s bloody hand.

“You have time to speak the name of Nagal.”

A flicker of acceptance crosses the boy’s face and a moment of understanding seems to pass between the two of them. I can see his lips forming the word in the moment that Marin’s sword finds the cut in the heavy chainmail and plunges into his heart. Marin twists and pulls clear as he turns to me, his face set, concealing his feelings.

“Ariel, did you find Tanil?”

“No. I was hoping you had.”

“He will be heading back to the city. With your speed, you should be able to catch him while I help Brac take care of Deris.”

I start running. I will have to do this with an arrow. I can’t get too close if my failure to kill him is going to look convincing now he has escaped, away from the others. We are almost out of the trees when I see him ahead of me. I pull the bowstring taut.

It is actually much harder to hit someone in the leg than in the body when he is running for his life. I get him on the second shot and he turns as he falls, desperate to see who is behind him. I step out of sight and put the next arrow through his hand. That should ensure he will only be fit for delivering messages instead of fighting for a while.

I get back to camp to find Marin kneeling by Deris, carefully cutting round the severed arrow shaft still buried in the wound. He looks up as he hears my footsteps approaching.

“Did you stick to your orders this time?”

“Tanil will be limping and using one hand for a while. I hope Kashia can make good use of his messenger role, because the effort to restrain myself from killing the miserable traitor has worn me out more than fighting all the rest of those assassins just now.”

“Good. You’re learning.” Marin turns back to his task. “We have to ride now and I can’t risk the arrow working its way further in as we move and reaching his heart. Give me your brandy flask. And I’m going to need any woundwort you collected as well.”

“How bad is it?” Without thinking, I move closer and reach for the base of the black shaft buried in Deris’ ribs.

“No!” Marin grabs my wrist. “You can’t heal him, Ariel. Remember what it did to Trengar. I don’t know if the same thing would happen if I healed him. And it really hurts me having to stay away from that, knowing I might be able to save his life. I know how hard you must be finding it to hold back, because I feel the same.”

I can see the pain written on his face. There is no point arguing. Marin already knows everything I might try to say. Something stirs at the back of my mind, the shadow of a thought that started in Kashia’s cellar, pushed out of the way while I focused on my sister. No time to search for it now. I give Marin the brandy and the herbs.

“Did you find Lupine?”

He shakes his head. “No. I’m getting worried. Even if she does a bit of hunting while she’s scouting, she never strays far from her patrol route. She should be back by now.”

“I’ll go look for her.”

He hands me her whistle. I notice how relieved he looks as I get to my feet and move away. I don’t suppose my anxiety for Deris was helping his concentration.

I have already learned that the radius Lupine uses to scout around our camps is fairly consistent. Far enough out to give us warning but close enough for her circuits not to take too long. All I have to do is run one circuit and I should find her, starting on the side nearest the city.

I have covered less than a quarter of the loop when I see the silver-grey heap lying under the damp horsetails and ferns, next to a partly-eaten hare.

Poison! They knew about our wolf-scout…

I pick up the hare and try to find any tell-tale scent on the raw meat where Lupine had taken the first few bites. Nothing.

Well, that rules out nightbane which smells of almonds. I shake my head with impatience. I’m not thinking straight. They wouldn’t use anything that tastes so bitter. An animal would sense the poison straight away. Even as I run through my mental list of scentless, tasteless poisons, my hand is reaching into my pouch for the emetic powder I always carry. I tip the powder into my water bottle and force it between the wolf’s teeth––knowing I would almost certainly risk losing fingers if she weren’t already half-conscious––and pour the contents down her throat.

She chokes and splutters but I can tell most of it has gone down. Then it’s just a case of getting my arms under her chest and heaving her upright while she vomits.

If anyone had told me that learning to fight with the Eldrin would involve propping up a large wolf so it can throw up, I definitely would not have believed them.

Blood in the vomit. Now I know what they used, dammit. I need to get her to the stream. Fast.

“Come on mutt, this is going to be uncomfortable for both of us. Just hang in there.” I heave her over my shoulders and head back to camp, the nearest access point to water. I call over to Marin and Brac who are still operating on Deris.

“They poisoned her with aconisia. I think I know where to find the antidote. I just have to get her drinking enough to wash as much as possible out of her system.”

Marin’s voice is a little muffled as he continues working on Deris with his back to me.

“Can you remember the hand signals telling her to drink?”

“Yes.” Now I think about it, I can remember every hand signal and word-command I have seen Marin using. I push Lupine’s nose into the water and make the sign for drinking. I’m amazed when she responds. One of the effects of aconisia poisoning is a reluctance to drink, so if the internal bleeding doesn’t get you, dehydration will. It is often desperately difficult to persuade humans to drink when they have been poisoned and I can’t explain to Lupine why she has to do something that is obviously making her feel nauseous but… she just obeys orders.

When I feel confident she has gulped down enough water inside her I let her flop out on the grass then set off upstream, searching for the grey-green lichen that is the antidote for aconisia. It takes longer than I had hoped and by the time I return, chewing the disgusting grey scaly stuff as I run, Lupine is lapsing back into unconsciousness again. Spitting grey slime into my water bottle is not making it exactly attractive but at least she isn’t at her most alert and doesn’t react. Not until I pour the bitter-tasting stuff down her throat, at which point all her training, discipline and willingness to obey orders finally gives out. She twists round, snapping at my hand and snarling.

“Lupine!” Marin’s voice cuts across the clearing and she stops, whimpering. I stroke her head, hoping it gives her some comfort.

“Hey. Come on, soldier. You’ve done better than most humans who get hit with that particular poison.” I know it doesn’t contain any of her keywords but I’m hoping the tone and the strokes get the message across. She seems to settle. I lay my hand on her side, sensing the battle her body is having with the remains of the poison. The healing energy builds under the skin of my palm but I hold back from releasing it. In spite of Marin’s reassurances that she has been immune to the effects so far, I have had too many disasters to risk what it might do to her in the long run.

Marin and Brac help Deris to his feet. He is unable to stand unsupported and he’s coughing blood, so they lift him into the saddle in front of Marin, who holds him as he rides.

Brac comes over and gathers up Lupine in his arms.

“Best with you. You’re lighter than I am, less likely to tire the horse with t’ extra load.”

So long as Sahan doesn’t object it should work. I swing myself into the saddle and steady Lupine as Brac drapes her across in front of me like a silver-grey blanket. I steer Sahan to fall into step beside Marin.

“Where now?”

“Tal’s last message from Kashia. The Eldrin have finally pulled off the covert extraction they were planning. The king and his nephew are now a day’s ride away from Drystream Manor without the knowledge of either Farang or the traitor generals. The Eldrin guard are taking them to Blackthorn Manor with Allantis and his archers riding rearguard to decoy the pursuit in the wrong direction.”

“How far from here?”

“Blackthorn is near the mountains, not far from Maratic and close to the main route to the Northlands. The ride should not be too bad for Deris.”

I steal a glance at the wounded Elf warrior. The pallor of his face tells me that he absolutely should not be riding anywhere in that condition. I can’t let him die. If Marin can deal with the results of my healing, so can Deris. If it looks like he’s not going to make it, I’ll just wait until Marin isn’t looking and then––

“No. You won’t. He’ll be fine without it.” Marin’s voice is firm.

That’s the trouble when someone knows you too well. And when you have a face that refuses to keep secrets. I don’t want to confess to yet another plot to disobey orders so I try to change the subject.

“What was all that with the dying Rapathian holding his sword and speaking the name of Nagal?”

Marin’s face betrays his intense dislike of being forced to act as executioner even though it was clear to both of us the wound was already fatal.

“Rapathians believe if they die fighting and calling the name of their war-god, all the riches and rewards they were promised after the battle will be given to them in the next paradise.”

“And you believe that?”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe. He did. Eldrin are trained to respect the enemy as human individuals, however much we might despise their system or their values. Otherwise we create the same tyranny we’re fighting against.”

I sense this principle has some connection with the way he and Brac can work so closely and intuitively together, but I can’t form the questions to explore further. Perhaps it’s something you have to experience rather than have explained. My mind flips to more immediate problems.

“I was thinking through all the things Tanil might have overheard in that cellar we just abandoned, about our attack on House Raksan. I couldn’t bear it if Trengar’s sacrifice was all for nothing.”

Marin frowns, deep in thought. “Kashia is usually very careful about restricting secrets to as few people as possible. I remember her sending Tanil on another mission when Shan’domir arrived, so Alina is safe. Nem will go through everything with Kashia, and she will also warn Shan’domir that his cover as a mere trader with a drinking and gambling habit has definitely been compromised.”

“At least we now know that although Purmut supplied the muscle for Farang’s projects, he made sure they were all spies. He obviously doesn’t trust the traitor any more than we do.”

“Farang has had years to develop a wide spy network in Samaran and I suspect Tanil was working directly for him. We just have to hope Kashia can use him to discover if there are any more security leaks.”

“While staying out of reach of the Fang’s assassins.”

“That too.”

I’m starting to see why Marin took such a risk to send Nem back to the city and also to make sure we kept Tanil alive. And he thought all that through during the instant decisions he had to make as we came under attack. I suppose that’s the difference between a leader and a follower.


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