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Arden Chapter 17:
To the End

It was a strange feeling to be a fugitive under a clear sky and bright autumn sun. Bronwyn felt that a daring escape from jail to flee the city should be made under cover of night. But night would arrive in its own time whether she was a fugitive or not.

But of course no-one else knew she was an escapee. Hardly anyone in the city even knew who she was, and the chances of her meeting someone she did know, someone who would stop her, were slim. Nevertheless Bronwyn wasted no time in making her way across the city back to her Inn.

She went straight to the stables and was greeted with a familiar snort.

“Hello, girl,” she said as she stroked her horse’s nose and patted the side of her strong neck. “I missed you. Sorry I’ve been gone so long. This is not the same city we left. I’ll tell you all about it on the way, okay?”

Bronwyn saddled up, tipped the stableboy for taking such good care of Shanks, and trotted through the city to the eastern gate. As soon as they were through Bronwyn let Shanks have her head, and they raced from the city toward the dark line of the forest.

It felt good to be riding again. She had spent too long standing and waiting and talking. She knew she might grumble about days of riding but Bronwyn decided there and then that days of standing still were far worse.  

But what was she riding too? A man who lied to her about being a Mage? A Mage rebelling against the rulers of Arden? There were soldiers, and undoubtedly Mages too, on their way to capture him, maybe even kill him, if what Chester suspected was true.

“But what is true anymore, Shanks?” Bronwyn whispered to her horse as the miles disappeared beneath them. “All I know is what I’ve been taught. I know the villagers are wary of me but they don’t think I lie to them, and they’ve been honest with me I suppose. Not many of them would call me a friend. So who do I believe? The Mage in the forest working in secret or the Mages in the cities ruling the land? Tell me, Shanks.”

But Shanks, as ever, said nothing and raced on toward the forest.

The sun was low in the sky by now and their shadow stretched before them along the road even as the fields around them glowed in the last light of day.

With a good road and clear weather they they soon entered the forest. Twilight was upon them now and the sun relinquished its daytime crown. Mottled moonlight dominated the heavens instead and cast its patchwork shadow through the leaves.

They had made good time to the Keep but one glaring fact still worried Bronwyn. They had not passed any soldiers on the road, which meant there was no possible way she could be there first.

“And what happens then?” She whispered to her horse. “Then what am I supposed to do?”

Bronwyn looked around and recognised this part of the forest. They were getting close. “Time for a break, girl,” Bronwyn whispered as she dismounted.

A welcome stream chattered past roots and stones nearby and they both drank. Then Bronwyn turned her fingers to work on the saddle and harness. “We don’t want them to hear us coming, do we?” she explained as her horse looked over her shoulder at her to see what she was doing.

Bronwyn wrapped small cloths and rags around the metal harnesses to tighten and muffle them and made a dozen other adjustments to quieten their approach. With no idea what to expect Bronwyn did not intend to blunder into the middle of a fight. She was no Battlemage.

Satisfied with her work, Bronwyn mounted her horse again and got back on the road. There was hardly any sound from the harness now. Even so, she rode slowly and off the centre of the path.

Then a thought occurred to her. What is Morrigan a Mage of? If he is of the earth or the wind and as powerful as he is old, then what can I do to help. He’ll be able to stop ten men all by himself. If he is of the Sea he might have something to use, maybe a water barrel. And if he is of the Flame there would be fires burning by now. Unless of course the soldiers found him before the fires were lit. Or if they took him by surprise! Or…or…the Mages they have know how to counter him? Oh Shanks, what are we going to do if there’s a fight? I haven’t had any lessons since before I was an apprentice. Everyone knows how to beat a Mage of the Flame. What can I do?

Bronwyn had no more time to wonder. Through the trees ahead she could hear fighting. She dismounted, dropped lightly to the cool earth and crouched in the shadows. The fires of Morrigan’s camp flickered up ahead, and although she could not see it clearly in the dim light, she could sense the ruins of the keep looming out of the forest.

“Stay here, Shanks. If I need you I’ll call.” Shanks shook her mane and searched the forest floor for something to eat.

Bronwyn crept forward, staying as low and quiet as she could. The fighting had died down already, and at the edges of the camp were horses and soldiers armed with crossbows. All were raised, ready to shoot. At the centre of the camp were the hired hands and there, apart from the others and with two crossbows pointed at him, was a cloaked figure she recognised as Morrigan.

He was not the only cloaked figure in the camp. Two more appeared to be supervising the soldiers and searching the camp while a third overlooked the scene from the back of his horse. Bronwyn recognised the bearing of Mages even from here.

At the command of the Mage on horseback a soldier lowered his crossbow and approached Morrigan. He was pulled to his feet, his cloak removed and his hands bound behind his back. Then the soldier jumped back, quickly pulled up his crossbow and pointed it at him again.

Well that settles that, thought Bronwyn. Morrigan must be a Mage. No-one else would inspire such caution.

Someone barked a command and Morrigan began walking toward a wagon. The soldiers kept their distance but their crossbows did not waver for an instant.

Bronwyn crept closer, staying behind trees and lifting and lowering each foot as slowly and quietly as possible. She thought she was safe in the dark while they stood in the light, but now was not the time for taking chances. There was more conversation among the Mages. The wagon was hitched and Morrigan pushed on board. Then the other workers were loaded, wrists also bound, until the wagon was full. There were two soldiers on the bench at the front of the wagon. One drove the horses while the other faced the prisoners, crossbow in hand. They were flanked by four more armed and mounted soldiers, and then at last the Mage on horseback wheeled around and followed them.

Bronwyn looked back through the trees but could see nothing. Shanks was far enough away from the road that they wouldn’t see her, and Shanks had been instructed to be silent, so she would be safe for now.

Back in the camp two Mages and three soldiers remained. Confident they were now alone they had all visibly relaxed and were already joking and retelling the stories of their eventful night in their mind. After enough private embellishment they would be ready to tell their heroic tales for real.

The campfires were stacked with fresh wood, and the cooking pot investigated and found desirable. The soldiers sat down to eat.

The Mages approached the ruins and disappeared from view.

Bronwyn circled the camp from the safety of the dark until she saw them again. They had passed through the arch into the courtyard of the keep. The earthworks here were already impressive. There was a table in the middle of the courtyard covered in papers and parchments and other strange shaped objects. Steps had been cut down into the soil and some stones had been moved, but the rest of the scene was nothing but shadows dancing in the firelight. The Mages descended the makeshift staircase and disappeared from view.

Bronwyn hesitated. She had already failed in her mission to save Morrigan, but what should she do now? She couldn’t follow the wagon of prisoners and rescue anyone. She wouldn’t last half a minute. She might be able to beat them back to the city but that would involve another hard ride back to Lorin. Shanks had been riding hard all day. There was no way she could make that journey in time at night, off road and in secret. Had it all been for nothing? Bronwyn decided it had not. She was still unknown to these Mages. Maybe she could learn something useful from them before she left.

She crept closer, wincing with every soft crackle underfoot, and reached the treeline. The Mages were still nowhere to be seen. The soldiers had their guard down as they ate and laughed and joked instead of placing a watch.

Bronwyn bit her lip and dashed for a section of moss-covered stone wall, ducked behind it and waited for the alarm. None came. She cautiously poked her head over the rim of the wall and studied the courtyard.

The excavations had certainly been planned well. There were no piles of loose earth in here. Everything had been carried outside the courtyard so as not to fill up the space. Every wall had a low trench running the length of its base but wall opposite her hiding place had had more extensive work carried out. She saw now that there were two staircases cut into the earth, and both descended into a dark hole underneath the wall.

She could also see now that the table in the centre was covered in large fragments of wood, splintered and rotten. Possibly the remains of a chest? Bronwyn looked back at the hole. Or a door? And what were those papers.

Feeling she had to know more, Bronwyn scuttled toward the table while trying to keep one eye on the soldiers and one on the dark door under the wall.

There were two distinct piles of documents on the table. One was dirty, rotted and covered in a furry growth of pale green. The other was fresh new paper, held in place with a polished marble paperweight. Inkpots and pens were nearby.

It seemed someone, Morrigan she assumed, had been making notes. The old papers must be the remains of books and scrolls retrieved from under the keep. The new papers were Morrigan’s notes.

Bronwyn slid the top sheet from under the paperweight to read. It was nothing but meaningless academia as far as she could tell. She glanced quickly at the doorway and read some more pages. They were just more notes on Mage lore and history and tradition. It was nothing controversial. She gnawed at the inside of her cheek. She had almost hoped there would be some secret revelation here that would explain everything, but maybe Morrigan was right and this was nothing more than an historical dig to unearth documents for a private collection. Even rebels needed a day job.

Then one phrase jumped out at her: The Unity Manifest.

That was something she had heard of, but as myth, as schoolground stories of Mages who could control more than one element. But it was only myth. No Mage in her had ever even hinted that such a thing could be possible, and besides, generations of Mages had been trained and the gifts were always of one element. If any Mage could control more than one they would be both formidable and celebrated.

But it was still nothing she could use and nothing a rebellion would seek out. The Mages interest in the ruins below must be no more than academic.

Bronwyn shuffled the pages back into place and turned to leave. There was nothing more she could do here. She looked over her shoulder to check the soldiers. They were still there, still eating. She turned back to the table and saw on the far side a Mage climbing the steps.

He froze.

“Guards!”

The soldiers looked round at last, saw Bronwyn, and jumped to their feet. Bowls and plates were dropped and weapons snatched up.

Bronwyn gasped, gestured, and the cookfire exploded.

The second Mage emerged and pushed past the first. He ran at Bronwyn with arm outstretched. A sudden wind blasted from the direction of the approaching Mage and knocked her down. The campfire died.

Bronwyn rolled to the side and scrambled to her feet but underneath her the earth pulsed and roiled. She fell again and scraped her shin on a corner of a fallen stone block. The soft earth around it rippled and the direction of the first Mage she saw.

The guards ran into the courtyard, clothes smoldering, and the two Mages separated to walk around the table.

Bronwyn reached out to the other campfire and a wall of flame shot across the ground to form a protective barrier. She used the stone to steady herself and climbed to her feet. The ground beneath her steadied. The Mages exchanged a glance. The earth Mage chuckled to himself and pointed at the campfire. The ground around it and beneath it heaved and swallowed the flames whole. He pointed at another and it too vanished into the earth along with the source of Bronwyn’s power and her hope.

“Who are you?” said the Mage of the Wind. “You’re not a hired hand. What’s a Mage of the Flame doing here? Are you a spy working for Morrigan.”

“I’m no spy. I’m no rebel!”

“Then why attack us? Why steal these notes?”

“I…”Bronwyn began, but realised even as the first word was out of her mouth they would never believe anything she said. She only had one option. Bronwyn turned and ran.

“Guards, bring her here,” snapped the Mage of the Earth. “No more questions,” he said to his colleague. We take her back for interrogation.”

Bronwyn half-fell, half climbed over the broken stone wall and landed on the other side on her hands and knees. She came up in a run and dodged between trees, hoping no crossbow quarrels followed her.

Soldiers crashed through the trees in pursuit, and they were catching up.

Bronwyn veered in the direction of her horse and whistled. Ahead of her a large shadow whinnied and ran forward to meet her.

Bronwyn dived to the side as her faithful companion charged past her, wild-eyed and full of fury. Shanks reared and struck out at the nearest soldier. Bronwyn rolled and jumped jumped to her feet.

Another soldier sidestepped the melee and darted forward to grab the reins while the horse was distracted. Bronwyn whistled two short, sharp notes and Shanks pranced out of reach and kicked backward. The hooves found their target and the soldier was flung backward to crash into a tree. When he struggled to his feet his arm was twisted the wrong way, and blood was seeping through the hair on the back of his head.

Bronwyn charged forward and threw herself against another soldier. She knocked the crossbow from his arms and kicked at his shins. He yelped, hopped back, then struck out. Bronwyn’s head snapped back at the blow and she fell. The soldier swung back one leg to deliver a kick to her prone body but screamed instead as Shanks bit hard into his shoulder. The horse reared again, teeth bared, and kicked out. The soldier dropped to his knees next to Bronwyn.

Bronwyn pulled away from him and reached for Shank’s reins. With her help Bronwyn climbed to her feet.

The third soldier snatched the reins from the other side, pulling them from Bronwyn’s reach. Bronwyn whistled again and Shank’s danced round in a circle. Her muscular hindquarters knocked the man down as she turned. Bronwyn gave another command and Shank’s stepped backward but the man rolled to one side just in time.

Her head still spinning from the blow she had received, Bronwyn pulled herself up into the saddle again and searched for an escape. Which way was the road? They had been turned around in the dark so much Bronwyn had lost her bearings. She picked a direction and kicked her heels.

But she realised she had chosen the wrong direction when the shadow of the ruins loomed out of the trees.

Two Mages walked toward them. Behind her three soldiers gathered their crossbows.

One of the Mages raised his hand and the wind whipped up, flinging sticks and leaves into her face and blinding her.

Bronwyn pulled Shank’s around to run between them and a crossbow bolt thudded into the thick leather saddle.

The other Mage gestured, and the ground underneath the horse rippled. Shank’s stumbled to one knee and let out a whinny of pain.

“Come on, girl,” Bronwyn urged her friend. “Take heart and run.”

Shanks struggled to her feet. The Mage of the Earth focussed his gift on the forest floor before them, and the ground shook and rose up in a wall twisting the trees into odd angles as their roots buckled.

Bronwyn wheeled the horse around. She glared defiantly at the Mages as she turned.

“Shoot the horse,” said a Mage.