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Shadowblade: (A Dance of Fire and Shadow Book 1) – Chapter 9


M, YOUR SKILL AND DEDICATION to duty brought you rapidly to being the leader you are now.

But I warned you before, your quick thinking and passionate nature sometimes lead you to make decisions you regret later.

Take time to check every detail before making a commitment to this course of action.     J.

.

.

We ride through the forest in silence except for the occasional quiet exchanges between the others, always beyond my hearing. I am not included in their discussions. My presence is acknowledged only by the frequent cautious glances in my direction, presumably to check if I’m planning to murder them all as we travel.

The friendship between us had been building for less than a day before they discovered what I was, yet I feel their rejection as keenly as if four people from my own village had suddenly cut me out of their lives. And yet, if the situation was reversed, I’m not sure whether I would have the courage to even ride with… what did they call me?

Abomination.

At the end of yesterday’s training session Marin informed me that my speed of learning has brought me to their level of skill already. I only have to watch a series of moves and I can feel it resonating through my body even before I copy it. Second time through the series I can adapt, calculate, feint, and vary the way I use what I’ve learned.

Marin thinks I will need another few days to build up my physical strength and then I should be able to defeat everyone he knows in single combat, including himself. Probably why they are having secret conversations, figuring out how to work as a team to overpower me if I turn on them.

I can’t imagine how they have the courage to go on honing the deadly weapon I am becoming. A weapon they may not be able to control. I tried to reassure them last night by spending three hours ferrying the salvaged hardware into the cave, working through the darkness as my eyes seem to be adapting.

I can now see as well by moonlight as Deris, who thinks I may surpass him in a few days. My efforts merely proved that my strength and stamina are still growing. I’m wondering where the limits will be.

No doubt that is precisely what the others are wondering as well.

We make camp an hour short of the city in a forest clearing out of sight of the road. Marin won’t risk a fire so we eat the food we prepared early this morning before we left the hut. Then there is time for an hour of sparring practice before dark. I walk into the middle of the clearing with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

The change in my ability is exhilarating––and training sessions are the only time the others speak to me. Sadly, this is the kind of conversation that Gendel and his friends had a few months ago while building a new structure to draw water from the well. Practical discussions to improve performance. The only difference is that I am included in the debate––in the role of thing under construction.

I watch them sparring together for a few minutes to learn a few more counter-moves. They have enough confidence in their self-control to use crysteel against each other, a confidence that will never apply to me. I am going to be using hazel wands until the first time I face the enemy. The knowledge brings a sense of incompleteness to the conclusion of the training session.

Marin seems concerned to find a way of overcoming the extra risk this lack of blade practice brings to their new weapon-adept. The lack of real experience before my first battle worries me too, but I would rather take that risk than find I have accidently killed one of them during practice. I have already noticed the flashes of anger that erupt inside me when I get frustrated or hurt. They are getting stronger and harder to control.

Marin gives the order for each person to keep lookout in turn. I am not included. Too easy to murder them in their sleep I suppose. He takes first watch and I walk over to sit beside him. He is repairing the slash in his chainmail where a Rapathian sword managed to slice through it in the battle outside Caerlen.

He turns to me and nods courteously. I know he has given the others strict orders to treat me fairly if not warmly and they all comply, even Nem. Marin is the only one prepared to engage in conversation if I have questions or ideas. On my suggestion they have already traded their military livery for dark-camouflaged Sylvani clothing taken from the deserted village in the hope of slipping into the city without drawing too much attention.

“Marin? How can you see what you’re doing by moonlight?”

He turns back to his work. “Done it so often I go mostly by the way it feels.”

“Hasn’t anyone decided it might be better to carry a bit more weight for greater protection?”

“No. Speed is the best protection. On balance this works well if you can stay ahead of your adversary. You can’t keep everything covered, so there will always be weak points however heavy the mail.”

“And you slowed down because you were fighting four or five of them. I wondered about that when I pulled them off you.” I want to ask him about his self-imposed suicide mission but it hangs in the air unspoken until he answers anyway.

“It… was a difficult decision. When we discovered we had been betrayed, my orders were to survive the battle and set up cells of resistance in different parts of the country. I was told it would not be possible to save the conscripts, but when it came to it I couldn’t just abandon them. I suppose I hoped I could kill enough enemy soldiers to get buried under a pile of bodies.”

“Well, you managed that. It was all I could do to pull them off you. What I can’t understand is how the king managed to let this disaster happen in the first place. I always thought Tandarion did a reasonable job of keeping the country in good order. Better than some of his predecessors if the stories are anything to go by.”

Marin stops working on the repair for a moment, staring into the dark shadows of the moonlit forest.

“He’s old, Ariel. He ruled well when he was younger but these last few years he has relied increasingly on Farang. Made it too easy for that traitor to hatch his own plans, all the while running down numbers in our military, replacing skilled fighters with elaborate static barriers around the ports. Except for Seasca, the one the invaders used of course. And Tandarion’s nephew has barely turned fourteen. Not old enough to take over in his own right.”

I remember hearing how the king’s wife and son died suddenly of a mysterious illness some years ago, leaving his newborn nephew his only successor. In the light of what has happened since, I’m already wondering if it might have been an illness caused by poison, as much of the gossip suggested at the time. I restrain from following the topic. It feels easier to discuss strategy and history, rather than my own awkward role here, but I have to deal with what is happening now. I can’t put it off any longer.

“Marin, can I make a couple of suggestions?” I pause for a moment, working out the best way to explain, already listening suspiciously to my own words as I know Marin will. “You said you have seen adepts before and you described them as ruthless and self-serving, so I have been watching for that in myself.” I wait for a response or correction but he just nods silently so I stumble on. “I have noticed the ruthless aspect. It grows alongside the increasing confidence I have that individually at least, I could force any of you to do as I demand.”

I watch his reaction. Sharing my feelings risks confirming his worst suspicions, but this is the only way I can think to try to make this alliance work before it turns into a disaster. I need the help of this band of Eldrin if I’m going to find my people. He gives nothing away and waits for me to continue.

“Marin, in a few days I think I’ll be strong enough to take on all four of you. I know you’re the best in the land and you will probably kill me, but not without loss. The only way this is going to work is to include me in your plans so that ruthlessness can be directed at the enemy instead of all of you. Right now I’m struggling against the feeling of being isolated, that you see me as the enemy.” I lay a hand on his arm to stop him saying what I know is coming. I want to say it first.

“I know that is exactly what I would tell you if I’m planning to betray you. And I can’t expect you to believe me straight away when I say that I have no wish to kill any of you. Go ahead and form a secret contingency plan with the others if you feel the need. All I’m asking is for you to help me use what I have to further both our goals.”

I can tell he is weighing my words against what he has learned from other adepts. Before he killed them. To my surprise he reaches for my hand and holds it in both of his own, his brow furrowed in concentration.

“Your ability has grown. But the ice in you has not.”

The heady sensual rush of feelings running through me at his touch is mixed with the painful awareness of how hard he is working to close off his own response. All his focus is directed to searching for my connection to the Blade’s power.

“You can feel it? The ice lightning inside me?” I shiver. Maybe I’ll eventually become nothing but Shadowblade, lost to the human world forever. Marin releases my hand.

“It’s faint now, but I can sense how it varies at different times.” He is looking at me with the same sadness as the first time I fully revealed what I was. “Ariel, why did you do it? We could have taught you. You could have fought alongside us as one of our own. But then you went and––”

He waves a dismissive hand in my direction.

Hell’s gates, I’m not a fortune-teller who can see the future!

“I hadn’t even met you when I made that decision.”

His look of surprise says it all.

“You mean you had already done it…?”

“Yes. That morning, before I found you half-dead on the battlefield.”

I had assumed he hadn’t sensed it because he had been in too much pain, but now I think about it he was alert enough to feel other things when we touched. That wasn’t all my imagination. He frowns and takes my hand again. I know he is making comparisons.

“I didn’t feel it till you came back from fetching the boar. What happened?”

I tell him. He thinks for a moment. “The power was far stronger when you let him take your life-force to save himself… and then give some back?”

“Yes. I don’t know why he helped me or why it nearly killed him. Seems like he’s trapped in some kind of curse where once he has given someone his strength and skill he can only step back and watch what happens without interfering.”

He frowns. “Maybe the reason I didn’t feel it the first time is because what you told me is true after all. Maybe you didn’t murder anyone to gain the blood-price.”

“Hmph. Thanks.” I shrug defensively, wishing I didn’t feel so resentful. “And now I end up with you and your crew watching me and waiting to see what happens, like I’m some kind of human experiment. Hardly surprising other adepts went crazy. Before you killed them. How did you manage it anyhow, if they were such strong fighters?”

“Well-practiced teamwork.” He is staring at my fingers, still clasped in his strong hands. “I’m glad you didn’t run out on us to take his gift in preference. I think the ice I feel in you diminishes when you have this power under control.” He sits in silence for a few moments, then takes a deep breath as if making a difficult decision. “Maybe you are different from those I have seen before.” He places my hand carefully back in my lap. “I’ll talk to the others. Go and get some sleep. You’re going to need it.”


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