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Iceblade: Chapter 16


WE ARE NOT DUE TO LEAVE Blackthorn until Nem gets back from her mission in Corinium with more spy-news from Kashia. Marin’s hawk-message says Nem will arrive by noon. I spend an hour searching for the missing connection between the secret spy-passageways and the escape route from the library.

I need to add more imagination to my thinking. I would have found it a great deal quicker if I had thought to search the roof of the tunnel as well as the walls.

Then I should just have time to check in with Marin and see if Nem has arrived yet. And maybe I can sneak in to see if Deris has made any improvement before we leave.

Which just shows how futile it is to make plans or predictions when you are in the middle of an invasion. As I pass the door to Sarinder’s private suite I notice the two Eldrin bodyguards are not standing either side of it.

Something’s wrong. I don’t stop to think about politeness or protocol and run inside, almost tripping over the corpse of one of the guards lying across the entrance. His partner is fighting someone in retainer’s livery at the far side of the room but he is already badly wounded and he is not going to last much longer.

Before I reach him Sarinder runs from the adjoining room, his dagger in his hand ready to attack the assassin. A brave move from a scrawny fourteen year old and it might have worked if the retainer hadn’t turned and dodged at the last moment.

He parries the stab and buries his own blade high in the boy’s chest.

It’s too fast. Too easy. Royal assassinations aren’t meant to happen like this! Are they? Somehow my hand manages to outpace my thoughts and I get one throwing knife into the assassin’s shoulder just before he disappears through the door. Someone outside yells for help and I assume he won’t get far. The second guard is gasping his last breath in a red puddle on the floor so my priority has to be saving Sarinder.

I drop to my knees beside him and enlarge the tear in his tunic to find the wound. There is a faint chance it won’t be lethal if I can stop the bleeding. The healing power gathers in my hands and I have to fight to hold it back, leaning hard on the arterial pressure point in an attempt to save him the old fashioned way. I am concentrating so intensely it takes a few moments to notice that I’m being choked by a chain tightening around my neck.

Powerful hands grip my arms and I’m dragged away from Sarinder as another Eldrin bodyguard takes my weapons.

“Take her straight to the king.”

My head is being forced down so I can’t see who is speaking but I can tell there are at least seven of them now and everything is going dark because the chain round my neck is stopping me from breathing. Then I get dragged into the next suite of rooms and forced to my knees. The chain is loosened enough to let me gasp in a few desperate breaths and I look up.

Straight into Tandarion’s furious eyes.

“Keep her alive long enough to find out who she is working with. And working for. I need to be with Sarinder.” He turns abruptly and walks away. The guards take my weapons, clamp powerful hands round my wrists and drag me out of the room.

They are heading for the dungeon. I found it yesterday. Not particularly large or impressive and currently unoccupied, but equipped with enough unpleasant instruments to give a fair idea of how they are planning to find out who I’m supposedly working for.

Once I am in there with iron shackles on my wrists and ankles, it’s all over because I have no information to give them apart from protestations of innocence and they will be expecting those. In the early stages at least. But if I kill the guards and escape I will be guilty of murdering Eldrin kingsguard and there won’t be much point in trying to prove I didn’t attack Sarinder.

I try to clear my mind and focus. I know what I have to do and I will need more control than ever before if it is going to work. I wait until the panic dissipates and everything slows down, feeling clear, sharp, perfectly in balance…

And then I steal just enough life-force from each guard to weaken them both so I can push them to the floor without wounding them. I grab one of their fallen blades and run. The outer doors will be guarded by now so I head for the library, only to find two guards on that door as well. I duck back around the corner and slip into one of the spy-tunnels, following the map in my head that leads straight to the connection with the escape tunnel.

I don’t waste time lighting a torch. If they are already searching the tunnels it will give my presence away before I see the patrol. I run one hand along the wall and count paces along the escape tunnel I explored yesterday until I reach the cave at the far end. If this is how the lions felt when they were trapped in the arena, their end was even more cruel than I imagined. All I can think about is my desperation to escape as I scramble through the crevice at the back of the cave and out into the soft green light of the forest.

At last I’m clear of the rocks and the deep forest shadows are beckoning with their promise of concealment. I can hide in the mountains until they give up hunting me, then double back and find my way home––

Marin blocks the way, blades drawn.

The panic of being trapped again takes over. I lash out. He parries and twists to divert the blow but I see the shocked look on his face as he feels the force of the power I have just stolen from the guards. In that instant we both know I can kill him in the next few moves.

He steps back and sheaths his swords.

“Ariel. Don’t do this.”

The desperation to escape is too strong. I can’t think of anything but getting him out of my way and disappearing into that alluring freedom I can see just beyond him. I can’t understand how he has the courage to stand there, unarmed, calmly waiting for me to attack. He holds my gaze and something in his eyes cuts through the overwhelming fear of being trapped. I can’t kill him. I love him. I have to trust that he is not going to abandon me to be tortured to death for something I didn’t do.

Slowly, I go to my knees, forcing my hands to lay the stolen blade on the ground.

“I was trying to save Sarinder, not kill him. The assassin was dressed as one of the king’s retainers.”

Marin walks over to sit beside me. “So why did you run?” His presence radiates reassurance––but my fear says he will feel it is his sworn duty to take me back to face Tandarion.

“They had already decided I was guilty.”

“Why?”

“Because of what I am. They were dragging me away to torture me for information I didn’t have. We both know how that ends.”

He thinks it over in silence for a few moments. “I didn’t know that part of it. The brief message I got was that you had tried to kill Sarinder and then escaped. I knew you would find your way here so I cut across the grounds to head you off. If I had stayed to find out more I would have missed you altogether.”

“Marin, the point is, if it wasn’t me, then the assassin is still in the house waiting to strike again. You need to get back there fast.”

“While you make a run for it through the forest?” He reads it in my eyes. The desperation to be free of all this suspicion hasn’t gone away. “Ariel, I won’t try to drag you back there with me, but can you trust me enough to wait here until I return?”

I think about it. “Yes. I do trust you. But I don’t trust the king’s justice. Sorry. I just had a taste of it and it wasn’t reassuring. It won’t be long before they check this escape route.”

“Fine. I can take you to another place on my way back to the Manor.” He stands and walks away as if I have already agreed to this. It’s the first time I’ve come across this sort of arrogance with Marin and I’m so surprised I just follow him without argument. At least if I haven’t accepted the order I can still run without him complaining that I have broken my word.

Maybe he knows me better than I know myself. By the time we have walked for a few minutes, away from the stifling memory of Blackthorn, I’m thinking a little more clearly.

“Marin, the assassin will be easy to identify seeing as I lodged a knife in his shoulder, but there may be more. Perhaps you should convince everyone you still think I’m guilty, make him relax so you can watch him.”

He turns to face me. It almost might be a smile on his lips. “I’m glad it came from you.”

“Because you were planning to do that anyhow?”

“You know it’s the only way.”

“Just promise me if the story gets out of control you’ll kill me before they start cutting off my fingers in that dungeon.”

He squeezes my arm. “It won’t come to that. Do your Sylvani camouflage thing in one of these trees and wait for me to get back. Whatever you do, don’t try to run. They have already sent patrols out into the forest and I won’t be able to protect you if they find you first.”

“I can’t keep still, Marin. I have to move. I… I stole life-force from the guards in order to escape without killing them.”

He lets out a sharp breath of exasperation. “I knew I could feel something different back there. I thought it was just panic. Fine. It might give you the edge you need to outpace the patrols. Head due north. I’ll come back with Lupine. She’ll find you.” And then he’s gone, before giving me a chance to agree or not. Again!

I start to run, telling myself his responsibility is to Sarinder and he can’t waste time arguing with me.

By the time I have outrun the various search parties the jangling energy inside me has dissipated enough to bear sitting still for a while, nestled in a crook of oak branches at the head of the valley. It is my first chance to try to make sense of the sudden change of circumstances, although no way of extricating myself emerges from the chaos of thoughts that are tearing through my head. As a Blade adept, I will always be the first suspect for any crime. Only Marin is willing to believe me and it is a fragile lifeline.


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