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Iceblade: Chapter 13

SOME SOURCES SUGGEST that the ability of an Elemental to confer power directly to humans was developed in collaboration with the first Power Mage as part of an alliance against Rapathia, but no reason for such an alliance has been recorded.

The story of Maratic, from the Eldaran archives.



It is almost the end of the following afternoon by the time we reach Blackthorn Manor, set in a high valley further from the snow mountains and not unlike the surroundings of Maratic except that it is more thickly forested with ancient oaks and tall pines. It is a beautiful, peaceful place but it looks almost impossible to defend if a legion of Rapathians were to suddenly sweep down on it. I can’t help feeling the Eldrin should have brought Tandarion somewhere a bit more fortress-like, but maybe that is exactly what the enemy would expect.

The Eldrin guard-post has been set up outside the Manor grounds, securing the main gate and with patrols circling the outer wall. The guards already know Marin and let us through, exchanging anxious glances with each other when they see the half-conscious form of Deris supported only by Marin’s arm and sheer willpower.

The Manor itself is a large stone-built square building occupying a slight rise in the middle of its extensive grounds. Guards patrol the broad top of the walls and several more are posted outside the main doors to the house. It gives the impression that the Eldrin are taking no chances if the king is expected here soon.

Marin dismounts outside and carries Deris straight to the room that has been taken over as an infirmary. To my relief, the surgeons and medics who run to meet us are all Eldrin. If their medical expertise matches their fighting skills it will be far ahead of anything available among even the king’s personal surgeons when it comes to experience of dealing with people who have recently had arrows cut out of them.

Deris has hardly spoken since he was wounded. It has been difficult to get him to drink enough to replace fluids from the blood loss he suffered when Marin cut out the arrowhead. It tears at my heart to see him lying so still and pale while the Eldrin surgeons gather round to see how much additional damage the ride has inflicted.

I’m missing Deris already. He has always been there for me with his protection and his answers to my questions. Without him I don’t think I would have made it through those early days under everyone’s suspicion. I need his songs of flowers and sunsets to take the cold edge off the way the world often feels with this deadly gift of mine. Marin takes my arm and steers me outside.

“Give them space to do their job. We are just getting in the way here.” He signals Brac to stay and keep watch on Deris while completing his sketches of anyone he remembers seeing still alive at House Raksan.

Marin leads me back outside into the gardens surrounding the house.

“Your heightened senses could be valuable in protecting the king if we are attacked. You need to become familiar with the layout of this place as a precaution. There is an escape tunnel leading from the library to a hidden cave in the cliff just north of the estate wall. Find the key on the third shelf to the right of the window. Make sure you can get in and operate it with your eyes shut. If we are attacked, it will likely be at night.”

“Where are you going?”

“A few people I need to talk to. I already know this house and all its secret hideaways. The Eldrin are bringing the king via a few other safe houses to ensure they have not been followed and they will be arriving with him anytime soon.” He allows himself to relax enough to give me an encouraging smile. “Go and explore. You look like you need to be free of someone issuing orders for a while.”

“Surely the guards won’t let me wander anywhere I want?”

“The guards are all Eldrin who were summoned from Maratic yesterday. Even if they don’t already know you by sight, they know crysteel when they see it. They will let you through. Check the outside of the house first, to get a sense of the shape of it, then see how many more of its secrets you can discover inside.” He gives me a gentle push.

I soon discover that Blackthorn Manor is not only elegant and comfortable but also extremely deceptive. The smooth stone of the house exterior is sheer and devoid of the kind of cracks that climbers like myself or Deris could use to sneak in at night as we did in the city. The lower windows are protected by squares of finely-worked steel depicting artistic scenes of twining leaves and birds. A few experimental prods with my dagger point tell me the metal is tempered with something that renders it unusually hard. Probably very difficult to cut through.

It gets even better when I arrive inside. The stylish rooms and passageways are set at odd angles that are confusing to navigate, while the plaster is decorated with such complex interweaving patterns that it takes me two circuits to distinguish between the different areas.

In some places there are huge tapestries hanging from ceiling to floor and they also have the same confusing designs in muted reds and greens. And they are always hung in the same position in each room. Some tapestries conceal hidden doors that lead to narrow passageways between the walls, giving access to a number of places to hide or to spy on anyone inside the rooms. Or to blow poison darts at them I suppose. There certainly isn’t enough space to draw a bow in these concealed tunnels.

If Blackthorn’s secrets have been well guarded, this probably is the safest place to bring a fugitive king after all. Providing the escape route out of here is easy to reach in a hurry.

I find the library and trawl along the shelves looking for a key. This is taking far too long and it feels like an unreliable way to access an escape in the dark, possibly under attack, smoke, arrows…

No. They wouldn’t rely on a traditional sort of key. I go back and explore the carved hardwood of the bookshelves for something that would function as a key. Third bookshelf from the window. Hmph. There are three windows. Try the one nearest the corner. I remove the book at the end of the shelf at chest height because eye level for a man would be too obvious. Then I remember Kashia’s fragment of spy-wisdom.

Never put a secret lock at eye level for anyone.

I try two shelves down and it turns out to be on the shelf below that, but anyhow it was a reasonable guess. I reach in and after a few seconds of groping blindly, find the catch at the back near the wall. A narrow section of the bookcase swings back and I step into a dark passageway behind.

It occurs to me that leaving secret doors open behind you might make them rather less secret than they should be, but I have the foresight to search for the key to get back out again before I shut myself in the dark. Turns out it is at floor level and requires both hands on opposing levers. Ingenious. I estimate the number of paces between the torches and tinder left ready at intervals in sconces along the passage walls.

Then I take a deep breath and close the door behind me, counting the seconds it takes to light a torch in the pitch blackness, just as I would have to if I was escorting the king to safety. Too long. I need to practice this a few more times. Maybe after I have finished checking the route to the outside.

Once again, I count timings and number of steps to each corner and junction, always choosing the direction with slightly fresher air in it. If I have time I will find out later where the other passages lead to. Most likely they simply loop around to confuse potential intruders.

The tunnel ends abruptly, blocked by a solid stone wall. Thinking back to the system in the castle dungeons, I pause to work out where the key might be. If the priority is to facilitate a rapid escape, then it will have to be simple and fast. I run my hand along the edge of the barrier until I find the slot in the mortar that conceals the lever. Release and push, and the edge of the wall swings open on well-oiled hinges.

If, as in the dungeons, there is a second system for getting back in, now would be the time to find it rather than when I find myself stuck on the other side of this heavy door. I check the ceiling and sure enough one of the shadowy ledges conceals a tight tunnel that leads a dozen yards further down the main passageway. I wriggle through and drop to the ground, looking for a marker to identify the entrance on the way back. Not easy. This section is pocked with shadowy ledges, any of which could disguise a tunnel entrance. Without a clear guide it would take hours of searching to find the right place. I wedge my dagger in the crack that forms the first handhold and then count steps to the entrance to the cave at the far end of the main tunnel.

The cave is small and well-stocked with water and dried food already packed in saddlebags. A jagged crevice at the back leads to an easy scramble to the forested hillside. Beautifully planned and well set up, provided there are no more traitors like Tanil in our midst.

Time to go back to the house. I check that my step-counts match what they were on the way in, retrieve my dagger from its marker point and close the stone door. When I reach the door to the library, I extinguish and replace the torch so I can practice opening the catch in the velvety darkness.

I can go back later to see if I can improve my reaction time with each stage but first I want to double-check the hidden internal passageways and spy-holes so I can align their positions with the route of the escape passage. I have an uncomfortable feeling there is a spot where they come too close together for coincidence and if there is a connecting passageway I need to know about it.

I reach the spy-hole to the main apartment and catch my breath in an effort to stay calm as an outburst of voices and footsteps announces the arrival of King Tandarion and some of his retinue. My eyeline fails to give coverage of the whole lavishly furnished room but I can see key points of it well enough to silently congratulate the architect whose skill put the whole plan together.

Tandarion walks slowly towards the great carved chair at the head of the room and waits for a servant to remove his cloak. He seems to be staring straight at me and I hold my breath, transfixed with fear and embarrassment until he turns his head to whisper to an attendant. Another example of clever placement of furniture to make best use of the spy-hole.

Panic over, I have time to notice more detail about the king I am seeing for the first time. To my surprise, now I am close enough to see his face I can see that he is not much older than my mother was when she died, but his posture is far more worn and tired than I would expect from just a hard day of riding. The deep lines creasing his face speak more of sorrow than of age, perhaps bearing witness to the weight of a defeated kingdom.

Running footsteps announce the arrival of someone light-footed and eager and a moment later a tall and rather gangly fourteen year old comes into my range of vision. The king turns towards him.

“Sarinder! How many times have I told you not to run unless enemy soldiers are after you? Apart from worrying me half to death that we are under attack, it is not appropriate for an heir to the realm.”

I can’t see Tandarion’s face but I can tell from Sarinder’s reaction that he is not taking the reprimand to be as quite as severe as it sounded.

“Sorry, Uncle. I just needed some exercise other than being sat on a damn horse all day.”

“Indeed. Very good. Exercise is essential in these dangerous times. I will summon a couple of Eldrin bodyguards and instruct them to accompany you on a run around the grounds for the next hour.”

Poor Sarinder is too respectful to argue but I can tell from his face that a whole hour of running wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind, especially as it is getting perilously near dinner time. He bows politely and heads back towards the door.

I decide that it is well past time to retreat before this weary but very perceptive king discovers me spying on him and concocts a suitable and appropriate punishment. I have a feeling it would be somewhat more severe than an hour’s run around the grounds and in any case I want to check on Deris. Maybe one circuit of the hidden passageways has been enough bodyguard-preparation for today.

The place is in chaos, with the few retainers the king has brought with him scuttling around trying to complete the work of five times their number. It makes me acutely aware that I was raised in a tiny village and have no clue how things are supposed to work in a royal court, however makeshift. Maybe this is a good time to sneak away to the Eldrin infirmary and leave pomp and circumstance to the experts.

I should have tried this escape plan a few minutes ago. I have barely made it to the end of the passageway when a flustered servant appears from a side door and almost knocks me off my feet. The girl gives my rumpled and travel-stained appearance a rapid once-over, decides I look about as unimportant as her own junior station in the household-support hierarchy and thrusts a clay pitcher into my unsuspecting grasp.

“Here, take this to the king. He wants to wash his hands before we bring his food.”

And then she’s gone, fleeing down the corridor to pick up her next overdue errand. I stand unmoving, the warmth from the water pitcher seeping through into my palms. I feel more terrified than when I was confronting the last bunch of armed Rapathians I had to fight. At least back then I didn’t have time to think.

It takes a moment to overcome the temptation to deposit the jug on the floor and make a run for it, but eventually the thought of being held responsible for abandoning the king’s hand-washing facility wins out.

I retrace my steps, wait for the bodyguards at the entrance to wave me through, and start to push open the door to the king’s apartment. I suddenly stop dead in the doorway.

Hell’s gates! King. Protocol!

I haven’t the faintest idea how I am supposed to go in and present a jug of water without causing serious offence. Then I hear Marin’s voice softly announcing his presence from within the room.

“Your Grace.”

Relief. I’ll stay quiet and watch Marin, in hope that if I copy what he does it will be deemed more or less acceptable. I sidle a little further into the shadowy doorway until I can see inside the room.

The king is standing with his back to me, his hands clasped behind him as he gazes out of the window. He turns slowly, his eyes focused on Marin and I notice once again how his movements and expression reflect a tiredness deeper than the effects of a hard day’s riding. His world-weary face betrays an exhaustion begun long before the Rapathian military set foot on our shores.

Marin bows his head and goes to one knee as he did when greeting Jantian. So far so good. I should be able to manage that, even clutching a pitcher of water.

I’m completely unprepared for what happens next.


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