And then there were three. (Poor Irissa.)
IT TOOK A long time for the debris to stop falling and the smoke to clear. As Hawk lay face-down in the bracken, arms over his head, he hoped Cyrus was all right. He could feel his mage-beast at the edge of their bond, but at that distance it was hard to tell if he was in pain or not. All he could do was lie there and wait, feeling battered and bruised from where branches had fallen on him. Thankfully nothing worse. He’d heard more than one tree fall under the force of Sidony’s magic, but luckily none had hit him.
When the coughing began he decided it was safe to move. Especially when the coughs were accompanied by groans. That’s when he got up and gaped at the devastation.
Sidony’s magic hadn’t just been released: it had erupted. Trees for about forty paces around the clearing had been flattened, smashed, snapped and broken. The three nearest the explosion had shattered.
In the middle of it all was a small crater, where most of the smoke and all of the groans were coming from. Hawk picked his way through the mess and slid into the hole, gathering the sooty little redhead into his arms and making sure both his hands found her skin.
“You, Lady Sid,” he murmured as the first wave of gold made her sigh, “are most definitely a battle mage.”
She gave a tired giggle and Hawk’s magic knocked her out.
* * *
HE WAS ON his back, staring up at the sky. He blinked a few times, surprised by how much pain so small a movement made. There was smoke. He could smell it as a few wisps drifted across his vision.
His ribs gave a great heave and he started to cough, or at least tried to. He was trapped on his back, arms tied behind him while something pushed down on his chest, pressing against his throat and making it hard to breathe.
Copper. It burned his skin. It had been there for so long he’d become used to the dull, constant ache of it draining his magic away. Now it lay on him, choking the very breath from his body.
As he coughed and gagged, he wanted to panic, but the copper held him too tightly. All he could do was rock in place and wait for the world to end.
“Roll him this way,” an unfamiliar voice ordered. “And, sweet rivers, don’t touch his skin.”
The chains tightened for a terrible moment, then he was on his side. The pressure on his chest vanished and though the tightness around his throat remained it eased enough for him to gasp. He breathed in, again and again. The air still tasted of smoke, but it was real and it filled his lungs like the sweetest thing he’d ever tasted.
“See if you can find a key.” That strange voice issued another order. “We have to get these chains off before it starts again.”
Strangers rustled around him – startled exclamations, talk of bodies – but he didn’t pay attention. He was too busy breathing. A cold nose snuffled against his cheek and he opened his eyes, sighing with relief.
“Rowan,” he croaked, voice damaged by smoke, choking and the screams of yesterday. “Rowan.”
The pine marten rubbed along his cheek, marking, claiming, comforting. He was back, he was safe. That was all that mattered.
The chains around his neck loosened and fell away, swiftly followed by the ones around the rest of his body and he rolled free with a blissful sigh. The pain ebbed as the magic of the world washed in to soothe him, and the hunger at the heart of him turned its back and slept.
* * *
“WELL.” STANDING OVER the unconscious boy with the pine marten snuggled in his arms, Irissa tapped her foot and frowned.
Hawk could understand how she felt. One moment there was a constant tug on his magic, an almost overwhelming compulsion to go to the boy and heal him, the next it was gone. The chains lay harmlessly on the pine needles, as deceptively innocent as a slumbering snake. Yet without them the boy seemed ordinary.
“Astonishing,” Irissa murmured, crouching to brush the matted black curls away from the boy’s forehead. Another frown, but this one of concern as she pressed her hand to his head, then touched his face. She looked at Hawk. “You can heal him now.”
As simple as that, Hawk thought a little grumpily. Until now Irissa had ignored his magic completely. To her, a witch, his magic wasn’t real because it came from inside himself, rather than from the world. To her magic was herbs, potions, muttered incantations and strong intention. To Hawk it was the pulse of his heart, the blood in his veins, the breath in his lungs.
And just like those things, it could not be denied. Which was why he flexed his fingers, let the golden light inside grow and touched the boy’s forehead. Heat raced up his arm, but Hawk fought back the urge to pull away. The fever was strong and he hadn’t been taught how to deal with them yet. He’d only spent a year at the mage school, putting it off for as long as possible to stop it from interfering with his page training. As a first-year healer he’d been taught to access his magic, to use it for minor cuts and bruises, to induce a natural sleep and to diagnose small problems. Everything else was yet to come.
However, whenever he hurt himself, no matter what he did, his magic knew how to heal it. So Hawk unleashed those instincts now and let his magic flow into the boy. There was other magic there too, but it wasn’t hungry anymore. Instead it was a lot like his – eager, helpful, healing. It rippled through him, filling his mouth with the taste of blackberries and mud, filling his nose with the scent of freshly turned earth and grass after rain. The new magic wrapped around him, flowing through his body then out again, returning to the boy. It was using him to learn to heal. Hawk maintained the contact as the magic entwined and went to work, burning away the fever and flushing out the infection.
It was unlike anything he’d ever seen or heard of before, and he never wanted to let go. Even as his magic started to dim, his head swimming and his body sagging with fatigue, all that mattered was this astonishingly strong, clean magic that tasted of the world and healed this strange boy.
“My lord.” The voice came from far away. “Stop now. You’ve done enough.”
He shrugged the words off. They weren’t as important as the healing and far less interesting.
“Hawk.” His world shook, but he hunched a shoulder and tightened his grip, sliding his hands around the boy’s scrawny neck. “Stop.”
No. His magic pulsed in defiance.
“Stone stubborn and twice as foolish,” the voice growled as pain slashed across his forearms. He yanked his hands back, realising too late that he’d broken contact. The bright, clean magic stopped, the remnants snapping out of him, leaving him cold, magicless and tired. The last spark of his golden light flickered out and Hawk slumped into the dark with a sigh.
* * *
AS THE THIRD and final child in the clearing dropped into unconsciousness, Irissa rested her hands on her hips with an irritated sigh. “Perfect.”
The sparrowhawk landed on his mage’s shoulder in a flurry of slate-grey wings. Yellow-rimmed brown eyes glared at her.
Irissa glared back. “It’s your job to guard him, not mine.”
The sparrowhawk twitched its wings and turned a sulky back.
Irissa rolled her eyes at such arrogance and looked around. Eleven bodies lay scattered about the nearby woods, eight of them dead and of no interest to her. The three smallest and closest were her problem. Just how was she supposed to move them on her own? Preferably without getting caught by the Callisuni slavers still roaming about.
Sighing, she got to work. “Mages,” she grumbled, dragging Sidony out of her pit. “Always more trouble than they’re worth.”
* * *
HAWK WORK TO darkness and hushed voices. The higher pitched, indignant one was instantly recognisable as Sidony, and he sat up with a smile. For a moment the world spun and pain throbbed, then his magic stirred and his vision cleared. There she was, fiery hair a muted glow in the slivers of moonlight poking through the canopy. She had her arms planted on her hips, chin jutted belligerently forward, and Hawk didn’t envy Irissa for whatever it was she was telling Sidony to do.
A shadowy movement made him realise he wasn’t alone. The strange boy sat with his back to a tree, stroking the pine marten on his lap, eyes fixed on the arguing pair.
Hawk tensed, ready to clamp down on his magic but nothing happen. His power stirred lazily before settling down again. There was no draw. Nothing was calling it out of him. The Hungry One wasn’t hungry at the moment.
He frowned and the sparrowhawk roosting in the tree above him shuffled his wings.
The boy glanced over, caught Hawk watching him and froze. His hand clenched in the pine marten’s fur and the mage-beast stiffened.
“Look, he’s awake now. He’ll agree with me. Won’t you, Hawk?”
Sidony’s loud question made him jump. “What?” he blurted in confusion.
“Irissa wants to sneak into the camp to free the last of your guardsmen.”
Hawk looked at the witch. “They’re still alive?” He couldn’t believe any had survived that ill-fated escape attempt.
“Four,” Irissa told him briskly. “They were knocked unconscious.”
“Surely they’re too much trouble to keep,” Hawk murmured, having been certain their kidnappers would have killed all the guards by now.
“Strong slaves bring good prices at auction.”
The low, hesitant voice drew everyone’s attention. The boy huddled against the tree, clutching the pine marten on his lap with both hands, head down as if expecting a beating.
Hawk met Irissa’s eye and read an echo of his own anger. Mage or witch didn’t matter here, just the brutal treatment of a young boy.
Sidony was frowning. “We don’t have slaves in Wrystan.”
The boy looked up. “Wrystan?” he croaked, looked at the pine marten and closed his eyes with a shudder. “So close.”
“Are you saying they’re here for you?” Irissa asked, pressing a hand to Sidony’s shoulder to silence her. “Did you run away?”
The boy nodded, hugging the pine marten to his chest and burying his face in its luxuriant fur. “I ran and ran, until I didn’t know where I was anymore. And they came for me. He always said they would, that I would never escape, but I almost did. We were so close.”
His accent was thick, but his grasp of the Wrystani language was startlingly good. Hawk had to admire him, even as his anger built at the words.
“You have escaped,” Irissa told him, inching a little closer. “You’re free now.”
The boy sobbed a painful laugh, shaking his head. “Eleven of them still live. I can feel them.”
Irissa looked at Hawk and Sidony and pursed her lips. “Can you do to them what you did to the others?”
Black eyes widened and the boy scrambled to his feet, chest heaving with panic. “I didn’t,” he whispered. “I didn’t do anything.”
Irissa smiled. “Yes, you did,” she said. “And if our luck holds, you’ll do it again. I have four men to rescue, several horses to reclaim and a trio of mages to take to the mage school. Is that not worth fighting for?”
The tension slowly drained from the boy’s body. “Mage school?”
Irissa raised her eyebrows at Hawk, and he nodded, saying, “That’s where we’re headed, if we can get out of this forest alive. You’re welcome to come too.”
“Mage school,” the boy whispered, touching the pine marten now settled across his shoulders. Clenching a hand in his mage-beast’s fur, he nodded. “What must I do?”
“Your name,” Sidony suddenly spoke up. “What’s your name? I’m Sid, this is Irissa and he’s Hawk. If we’re going to fight together we should at least be introduced.”
The boy stared at her for a long moment, then studied Irissa and Hawk in their turn. He smiled. It was small and shy, and looked like it hadn’t been used in a while, but it was sincere.
“Azarien,” he said in his soft, rusty voice. “I am Arien. And this is Rowan.” He stroked the pine marten draped across his shoulders.
“Very well, Arien.” Irissa took a deep breath and nodded at the mage-beast. “Rowan. Listen carefully. You two as well.” She nodded at Hawk and Sidony, the latter doing a victory dance at being included at last. “This is how things stand, and here’s what we’re going to do…”
~ Next Chapter ~
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