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In which things take an… interesting twist.
HAWK WASN’T SURE how long he sat there before he noticed the cage. At first he’d been too busy taking care of Sidony, healing her aches and bruises, comforting her grief. Then there was the argument between the slavers and the old man. Apparently the old man won, because three of the Callisuni trudged off, looking ill at ease, while their remaining cohort sat down to sharpen his impressive collection of knives.
As night closed in, the old man harangued his companion until he put his knives aside and started a fire. It was while they were coaxing the kindling into flame that Hawk first caught a glimpse of movement across the dell.
He had seen the rowan tree when they arrived, a little surprised to find a mountain tree swamped in the middle of a forest. It was old though, much older than the pines around it. Age showed in every twist of its knotted trunk and branches. Movement drew Hawk’s eyes to the lowest branch and his breath caught.
“What?” Snuggled up to him as she was, Sidony felt the shock ripple through his body. “What is it? Are they back?”
Hawk didn’t answer. His eyes were fixed on the cage and the animal within. He couldn’t be certain from this distance, but it looked like a polecat or a ferret, perhaps a pine marten, judging by its size. It was bundled inside a copper wire cage that was too small for it.
Across the dell bright black eyes seared into his and Hawk’s hands clenched into fists.
“Is that a ferret?” Sidony asked, sitting up and squinting.
She blinked at his sharp tone. “Hawk?”
“It’s a mage-beast.”
The fire finally built, the old man turned around and wheezed his grating laugh. “So you have seen our little friend. Reminds you of your own magic beasties, yes? Where are they hiding?”
He turned with unerring accuracy to stare at the branch where Hawk had last seen Cyrus. The sparrowhawk wasn’t there now, of course, but it still sent a chill of fear through him.
The old man showed his rotten teeth in a merciless smile. “He cannot stay hidden forever, little mage. We will catch him eventually.”
Not if Hawk had anything to do with it. After a long moment of waiting for his taunt to bear fruit, the smile faded from the old man’s face and he waved a dismissive hand at them. “Why bother? He will be here soon. Then you will learn.”
He turned back to the fire and the bubbling pot. For a little while the only sound in the dell was the crackle and hiss of the fire, until the old man started harassing the younger one again. This time he waved a leather bucket about, almost braining the Callisuni in the process.
The young man wasn’t budging. He kept shaking his head, pointing at the children then out into the woods. Once he pointed at the sky then slashed down with both hands in a clear refusal. The old man stamped his feet and raged. For a long time it looked like he wouldn’t get his way, until he started pointing at his companion.
Suddenly the younger man couldn’t move fast enough. He snatched the bucket, growled something bitter and hurried off into the trees. The old man wheezed and clutched his chest, shuffling his feet in a victory dance.
“Now,” he chortled, turning to face the children, “we can have fun.”
Definitely, Hawk thought, eyeing the pile of knives the Callisuni slaver had left behind and wondering how quickly he could grab one before the old man caught him. It was two against one and even though the old man was stronger than he looked, well, so was Hawk.
“Ready?” he murmured to Sidony, and she nodded.
“Yes, yes.” The old man rubbed his hands as he skirted the fire and nudged the cage in passing. “He will be here soon and it will be too late. Must take my chance.”
His shuffling feet caught on a raised root and Hawk seized a chance of his own, darting towards the knives. “Run, Sid!”
She did, but not the way he intended. Instead of bolting for the trees, like any other self-respecting girl would, Sidony headed straight for the old man, an unstoppable red-headed boulder, her head lowered like a ram.
“Leha!” the old man screamed, pointing at Hawk just as Sidony barrelled into him, carrying them both to the ground.
Beyond that, Hawk had no idea what happened as an invisible force wrapped around his ankles, lashing them together. He came down hard, feeling his ribs creak as air exploded from his lungs. Dazed though he was, the knives were only just beyond his reach, but when he tried to crawl forwards he couldn’t move.
“Leha!” That word again, but this time it ended in a pained grunt as the scrapping Sidony dropped onto the old man’s chest.
“Nasty, vicious brats,” he muttered, shoving Sidony off him. “Knew I couldn’t trust you. Should have bled you when I had the chance. Curse Veranon’s head. Him and his precious pet. Now look.” Still grumbling, he dragged Sidony by the ankle to where Hawk lay. She might not have been very big, but Hawk was still surprised at the ease with which the old man did it.
Catching sight of the knives, the old man grinned his gummy smile. “Eh, that was close. Almost too clever for me, little mages, yes, but in the end I was too clever for you, eh?” He wheezed his rough laugh again and started sorting through the weapons. “Useful, useful,” he muttered, slipping several of them beneath his tattered cloak.
“I like this one best.” He raised the largest knife, tilting it to make the sharp edge glint in the firelight. “It feels thirsty.”
“And it will drink your blood before the night is through.”
The old man fumbled his grip and almost dropped the knife as he sprang to his feet. “Who’s there?” he demanded of the shadows. “Kalihan?” He babbled something in Callisuni.
Even in his frozen state Hawk knew it wasn’t. Kalihan was a big man, his voice gruff and rumbling. This new speaker was most definitely a woman. A familiar one.
“Kalihan has been… detained,” Irissa said, stepping out of the shadows. A fresh bruise marked the right side of her face, another crossed her throat, but the blood splattered across her front and the dagger in her hand told their own story.
“Ah.” The old man peered at her face and relaxed with a smile. “You. I did not think you would come back.”
Irissa stared at him, eyes dark, face blank. “Something of mine was taken.”
“It is the way of things.” The old man shrugged and raised the knife again. “But you arrived just in time. Perhaps you will help, and we will see about returning what was taken, eh? They are spirited, but the little one is fresh.” He beckoned her forward and knelt over Sidony, rolling her over and studying her arms as if looking for the best place to start.
“No!” Irissa tore the knife from his hand. “They are children.”
Snarling, the old man swiped for the blade. “They are mages.” He spat in the dirt. “Foul, perverted, twisted. They made their bargain with darkness and now must pay the price.”
“No,” Irissa said again, holding the knife out of reach. “I won’t let you.”
Instead of getting angry the old man started to laugh. “You will not let me?” he chuckled. “You. What are you? You are no witch if you will not slay a mage when it lies at your feet. They should be dead already. You betray us, sister.”
“I am no brethren of yours.”
He snorted and spat again. “You think not? Then you are a fool. You would risk all you are and all you have for these?” He waved a crooked hand over the frozen forms of Hawk and Sidony. “Worthless brats. This one.” He grabbed Hawk by the hair and pulled him up onto his knees with surprising strength.
“Yes, this one,” he purred, his fetid breath drifting across Hawk’s face. “Can you not smell the violence in him? How he lusts for blood and the lives of others?” A hand gripped Hawk’s face and forced him to look up into milky pale eyes. “The taint of it already flows through his magic. The stench of that creature burrowing deep.”
He dropped Hawk and turned to Irissa with a smile. “Yet there is hope. The taint is not yet a stain. He can be cleansed and his magic put to better use. There is no blood on his hands yet.”
“And what of yours?” Irissa growled, holding the knife close. “How much of it stains your hands, old man?”
The old witch shrugged a shoulder and grumbled, “We do what we must for our masters. We do what we must to survive.”
“Yes,” Irissa agreed, looking down at the knife in her hand, the blood on her clothes. “Yes.”
There was a shriek from the forest and an orange blaze zipped through the dell. The old man turned to follow it, spitting a curse, but too slow to catch the racing sparrowhawk.
And too slow to stop the woman lunging towards him, the big knife in her hands. He turned, eyes wide with surprise, just in time to meet her. The blade slid easily into his soft gut, up to the hilt, finding no resistance.
In the shock of the moment she grabbed the old man close and hissed in his ear, “My master is the March of Gunnis Ridge and there lies his son. He might be a mage and my lord might be married to another of their kind, but they have always been good to me and mine. And I shall be good to them and theirs. I do not kill children. But I will kill evil when it crosses my path.”
The old man emitted a small wail as she dropped him. His wiry hands gripped the hilt, but not even he was foolish enough to draw it out. He curled around his pain and stared at Hawk with his pale, pale eyes.
“My master will come. He will come. And when he does, you will wish the world had ended. You will beg for mercy, but it will not come for you.”
Irissa put a foot on his shoulder and shoved him away, kneeling before Hawk and Sidony and pouring something bitter into their mouths from a small glass vial. “Don’t listen to his poison. Drink. We must fetch the others.”
“The Hungry One,” the old man hissed, even as he writhed in agony. “The Hungry One will devour you all. You should kill him, kill him now while you have the chance. He will eat you and there will be nothing left to offer the world. You should kill them before he has the chance. The pain, oh –”
Irissa gripped the front of the old man’s robe and yanked him up to see the fury on her face. “I do not kill children.”
The old witch laughed, even when she dropped him and he gasped in agony. “They will kill you, girl. Not one of them will save you when the time comes. There will be no one to save you. Mages will not suffer a witch to live. The Hungry One will eat you. And when he is done he will eat them too.”
Irissa stood over the old man’s body, her face a mask of light and shadow. “I do not wish to be saved,” she said. “There is nothing left for me. All I wanted was taken and it cannot ever be returned.” In a swift movement she yanked the knife from the wound, deaf to the old man’s wailing cries. “Bleed out, foul poison. Bleed out and die.”
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