Crossbows clicked before Bronwyn could panic but Shanks had already surged forward with a snort, and Bronwyn thought they were free.
Then her friend stumbled. One leg sprawled out as the horse tripped over her own legs and crashed to the ground. Bronwyn fell with her.
She saw the quarrels sunk deep into the horse’s side. The blood had already started to flow, and Bronwyn could not tell their screams apart.
When the soldiers dragged Bronwyn before the Mages and roughly shoved her to her knees she sat unmoving, and looked at her hands covered in blood not her own. And inside she burned.
“Who are you?” demanded one of the Mages. Whether he was the Mage of the Earth or of the Wind Bronwyn didn’t know and no longer cared.
“Some provincial Mage by the way she’s dressed?” wondered the other as he picked at her riding clothes.
“No doubt a rebel agent, your grace,” said the soldier with the broken arm. He winced in pain and Bronwyn was pleased.
The Mages exchanged some words. “Bind her,” said the first. “We will take her with us. One of you search the saddlebags of that animal.”
Bronwyn surged to her feet, her legs strengthened by anger and grief. “Don’t you touch her!” she spat. She struck the closest Mage with her fist just once before a soldier swept her legs out from under her with the arms of his crossbow. The Mage touched a finger to his lip and it came away blooded. His eyes flicked from the finger to Bronwyn to the soldiers.
“We had orders to bring Morrigan back unharmed,” he told them. He looked down at Bronwyn. “But we have no such orders for her.”
The Mage turned his back on Bronwyn and the soldiers, took one step forward, twitched and toppled backward, dead. An arrow stuck out from his heart.
The other Mage gasped in shock. The soldiers, trained fighters, ran for cover. They hastily reloaded on the move.
The live Mage ducked behind the nearest tree and carefully peered around it. Bronwyn saw the familiar expression of a Mage about to work flash across his face. Then a powerful wind roared through the trees in the direction of the unseen archer. Leaves ripped off trees and branches bent in the gale. Bronwyn’s hair whipped around her, blinding her. She shielded her eyes with her forearm and clamped her wild hair down. The Mage let out a soft wet sound and fell to the floor with a thump. An arrow was rooted in his heart. It had pierced his ribcage on his left side and found its deadly mark. The wind died when he did.
Bronwyn crawled backward away from the two bodies. Two attackers. There could be more.
The soldiers shot in the direction the arrows had come. One hit a tree. The others vanished into the darkness.
Another arrow appeared in the neck of the soldier with the broken arm. He fell without a sound.
One of the last two soldiers began to reload his crossbow, but the other abandoned his weapon and ran. His companion wasted no time in recognising the wisdom of his friends actions. He dropped his crossbow too and chased after him in a panic-fueled rout.
Bronwyn froze. Her heart pounded in her ears and her chest. She crawled backward, picking up scratches and cuts from the forest floor she didn’t even notice. Then she bumped into something firm and familiar and still warm which made her yelp in surprise.
Grief overcame terror, and Bronwyn gave up and wept for her friend.
Shanks, as always, said nothing.
Soft footsteps crept up behind her, and Bronwyn heard the creak of a bow being drawn taut.
“Halt,” said a voice of silk and steel.
Bronwyn didn’t move but one had searched the saddlebags beneath her for her flint and steel. Neither would make a weapon, but together she could make just one spark.
She only needed one.
Bronwyn drew back her fist and passed the steel to her right hand. She turned and slumped with her back against the body of the horse and looked up at the woman who had spoken.
There was too little moonlight here for Bronwyn to make out any features but the woman’s bare arms showed her as being of the Dale. And there was a hint of something in the face which Bronwyn thought familiar.
“Your horse?” said the woman. The bow was still drawn tight and the fingers on the bowstring stayed strong.
“Yes,” said Bronwyn. She brought her hands closer together and prepared herself.
The archer tipped her head in the direction of the dead Mages. “They killed it?”
“Her,” said Bronwyn firmly. “Yes.”
The archer took one step back. “You are an enemy of the Mages?”
“Well?” said the woman.
“I don’t know,” said Bronwyn at last.
Bronwyn could not see her face but the woman’s body language relaxed a little, although her iron grip on the bowstring did not change. Bronwyn relaxed her own grip on the flint and steel in her hands.
“Do you know this camp? Do you know Morrigan?”
Bronwyn pointed at the bodies. “They took him back to Lorin.”
“How many? When?”
“I don’t know. Four plus a Mage. Not long ago.”
The woman thought for a second. Bronwyn could hear her lips moving as she whispered to herself in the dark. Eventually she reached a decision. She lowered her bow and replaced the arrow in a quiver at her side.
She crouched next to Bronwyn and rested a hand on the horse’s flank and stroked the short brown hair.
“I am sorry for your loss. She was a beautiful creature.”
No longer in danger, Bronwyn stood up and pocketed the flint and steel. She looked down at her horse.
“She is,” said Bronwyn and did not cry.
“How do you know Morrigan,” asked the stranger. They had walked back to the ruins and she was picking through the remains of the camp for food and anything else that might be useful.
“I don’t. I first met him here only a few days ago.”
“But you fought with him?”
“No I…I don’t know. I just came to help him. Warn him.”
“You were too late.”
You were too late, thought Bronwyn. If you had been here sooner you could have stopped the Mages killing-
“Yes,” was all she said.
The woman kicked open the last bag and lifted the flap with her toes but it contained nothing of use.
“Why are you here? Who are you?” Bronwyn asked at last.
The stranger slipped one arm through her bowstring and wore it like a bandolier. She tightened the drawstring on her quiver so the arrows would not fall out.
“I had a message for Morrigan. I am Lydia, of the Dale.”
“You’re the woman from the sea, from Ashdown.”
“I woke up there.”
“Fishermen found your boat, damaged and burned, and they pulled you ashore.”
“Now I know who to thank for my life. But how do you know this?”
“I was there. I took the message you hid in the boat.”
Lydia’s face was too deep in shadow for Bronwyn to read, but her body language spoke plainly enough.
“You took it?
“It was a message for Morrigan, wasn’t it.”
“It was. Did he give you his reply?”
“He never saw it. I didn’t know it was for him so I kept it a secret.”
“Then where is it? And why do the Mages have him?”
“I..gave it to the Mages.”
“You did what?”
“It bore the royal seal, and there is no monarchy any more, so I took it to Arden’s rulers.”
“Why would you do such a thing as that if you are with Morrigan?”
“But I’m not with Morrigan.” Deep breath. “I am Bronwyn of the Flame, Guardian of the Peace of Arden. I am a Mage.”
Even in the dark Bronwyn felt Lydia’s gaze appraising her. “A Mage who fights with Mages but does not know Morrigan. Who’s side are you on, Bronwyn of the Flame?”
“I only just learned there are two sides.”
“There are always two sides. Otherwise what do you guard the peace against?”
“I’m not sure I know anymore.”
“Then learn, and make your choice wisely, Bronwyn. And consider this, I know you as a Mage of the enemy but I am letting you live. Your fellow Mages tried to kill you, or worse. If they had taken you back to the city knowing you worked with Morrigan they would have twisted the gifts from your mind as one pulls the head from a chicken.”
“But for what cause?”
“For the cause of power. What else do men and Mages seek?”
“But I don’t know anything.”
Lydia swept one arm in a gesture to take in the entire camp. She ended pointing at the trees where the body lay. “Do you think that matters to them.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Bronwyn asked.
“I have to save Morrigan before they break him. He knows too much. If he falls the Mages authority over this land will become absolute.”
At any other time, on any other day, Bronwyn would have begun explaining how that would be a good thing. Today she said something new. “Not all Mages think like this.”
“Good. Then I won’t have to kill them all.”
“That’s your plan, your goal?” said Bronwyn after they had taken what they could and loaded Lydia’s stolen horse with supplies. Now they travelled south-west through the forest, well off the main road.
“The goal is a free Arden, to steady this land before it falls.”
“By starting another civil war?”
“By removing the tyrants from power.”
“Every unjust ruler starts as an idealist.”
“But not every idealist falls. We don’t want to start another war.”
“But you will. Don’t you see that? Unless you can take power overnight, and take it so decisively that no-one has time to fight back, war will come.”
“Do you remember the White Lions?”
“The Kingsguard? They used to parade through the city on special days in their white armour.”
“Their power was taken overnight. They were betrayed. It didn’t stop a war.”
“So how will you prevent one? You can’t.”
“Sallus was the power behind the Mages. While people thought they could oppose him the war continued.”
“So is your plan to make people too afraid to oppose you?”
“Our plan is to show people they don’t have to. The king is not coming back, Bronwyn, and the Mages cannot stay in power alone. We have plans for a new leadership. One where noble and commoner, merchant and Mage can each have a share in ruling the land because each of them lives here.”
“A democracy? I’ve heard stories they can work in other places, but here?”
“I’m not the politician. But power will no longer reside in one man, Mage or King.”
“I don’t know you are going to make that work.”
“Morrigan will make it work.”
“Why are you so loyal to him?”
“Why are you so loyal to the Mages?”
“I’m loyal to the kingdom, to Arden. The Mages rule it.”
“If you support the Mages you are betraying Arden and the Dale.”
“But I am a Mage.”
“Is that why you support them? Because you are one of them? Where does your loyalty really lie? Is it to the Mages or the land? The rulers or the people?”
“Well where does yours lie? Are you doing this for the good of Arden or to gain power for the people of the Dale. How do I know your real goal isn’t independence for the Dale and freedom from our rule?”
Lydia grinned. “Of course that is my dream. The Dale should be free to rule itself again, I don’t deny it. But first Arden needs to be saved from itself.”
“So you’re only doing this because it will help you, help the Dale. Not because it will help Arden.”
“Does that make my actions wrong?”
“It muddies the waters.”
“We can’t all drink from your idealistic mountain stream, Mage. What did that get us?”
“It got us peace. I worked the eastern province for three years. There is peace now. The land is healing. You are going to destroy it all.”
“Not destroy it. Free it. Take it back from the Mages.”
“But I am a Mage. Morrigan is a Mage.”
“From Mage rule, then. We have Mages on our side, just as the Mages who rule have ordinary people on their side. This will not be a clean cut.”
“It’s messy,” Bronwyn said, sighing.
“It’s always messy,” Lydia agreed.
They fell silent then, and walked through the black and silver forest for half an hour more before they saw ahead of them the trees thin, and the starry western sky sit on the horizon.
They walked in silence toward the treeline. Lydia thoughts were forward, pointed at the task she had set her mind to, but Bronwyn’s cast backward. The Mages presented the land with an image of unity, of solidarity, against the old ways, against the rule of a monarch. It was the view she had always supported. Always believed. But now she had learned that not all Mages agreed with it. Chester, who had helped her escape for one, and Morrigan for another. Morrigan, who kept his secrets so close he didn’t even tell her she was a Mage. And maybe one other she had met too. Ovette had been the only one on the council not to treat her as if she was already guilty of some terrible crime. Was that simply compassion, or was Ovette reaching out to someone she believed to be on her side?
Chester had asked her the same question, and now Lydia of the Dale was here, wondering what side she was on too. The Dale; the land to the north of Arden conquered generations before by a king who felt his borders too small. Why did they fight against the Mages? Why did they fight for an empty throne? The same throne that had subjugated their land. Maybe they just hated Mages. Lydia had been quick to kill two of them back at the ruins, but Lydia had also left her alive knowing she was a Mage too.
Was that because Lydia thought Bronwyn was on her side? Did Chester think she was on his side? Did Ashdown think she was on their side?
What would Sallus say if she could speak to him? Would there be another side to choose, or could he explain all this away? What if he cleared everything up, reassured her of her place in the world, and the wisdom of the Mages? What then? She would become an enemy of Lydia and Morrigan and half the land of Arden if the support they claimed truly existed.
She would become an enemy of Chester, and she liked him, in a way.
Lydia pulled gently on the reins and the horse stopped inside the trees, half a mile south of the westway.
“Now we attack the city.”
“Attack? Lorin? Just you?”
“I have to rescue Morrigan, and I need your help.”
“I can’t attack a city. I don’t want to!”
“You know that place. You can help me get in and find him.”
Bronwyn shook her head violently. “Me? No, you need someone else to get you in there now. If the Mages suspect an attack or an uprising the city will be locked down. My knowledge, even my gifts won’t help you. You need a fighter. A soldier.”
“You and I are all Morrigan has. WIll you let him be tortured by then? WIll you let him die?”
“We are not all he has. There’s someone else. I don’t know him but Morrigan does. Maybe he can help us”
“Who?” said Lydia.