Wherever you are in the world, whatever you’re facing, please stay safe, everyone xx
THEY MADE THEIR move just before dawn, when the sentries were sleepy and hungry, their minds more focused on their stomachs and the watch change to come than on the forest around them. It wasn’t hard for Hawk to slip through the shadows towards the nearest of the four men. As a page he’d been taught by the best – a retired Border Scout, bored by the slow life of the palace and looking for a challenge in the form of teaching overeager pages.
Already dressed in dark green and brown, Hawk smeared mud on his face and hands before removing his boots. He slipped between shadows, moving slowly but steadily, freezing if the sentry glanced his way. As he got closer, he moved lower, until he was crawling through the pine needles.
Too busy sighing impatiently for the change he knew was coming, the sentry didn’t notice the boy until he grabbed his wrist. Gold light shimmered and, before the man could cry out, sleep swept in and dragged him under.
Hawk eased the sentry down to the ground before he risked letting go. A gentle snore answered him and he sighed with relief. Leaving Irissa and Sidony to tie him up, Hawk moved onto the next sentry, then the next and the next. All four were as slack as each other, tired and complacent after so many days in a foreign country without being noticed.
More fool them.
With the sentries taken care of, Hawk waited with Irissa and Sidony as Arien crept into the camp. Seven men stirred, getting ready to move for the day, their four prisoners chained up in the middle. In the light of the campfire Hawk caught a gleam of copper as one of his guardsmen shifted restlessly.
With such thoughts in mind he reached into his pocket and pulled out his own copper chain. It burned but he didn’t let go, even when all his strength seemed to flow out of his legs. Beside him Sidony let out a soft whimper as her fresh magic was drained and dulled.
“Try not to do anything foolish,” Irissa murmured, squeezing them both on the shoulder as she slipped away.
Arien walked into the centre of the camp.
Everything stopped, and Hawk wasn’t the only one holding his breath. The leader stared at the boy and narrowed his eyes. “You.”
Arien smiled, pulling a length of copper chain from his pocket and wrapping it tightly around his hand. “I’m hungry,” he said, calm and clear, before unleashing the Hunger inside him.
* * *
IT WAS LIKE releasing a wild animal from its cage, Arien thought distantly as the copper drained his natural magic, leaving only the Hunger behind. Like a beast it edged cautiously out of its lair, sniffing for prey. The nearest magic source was encased in copper and the Hunger roared with frustration.
Arien harnessed that anger and lashed out. Three Callisuni soldiers were running to tackle him and the Hunger met them head on. A blaze of bright magic and the men dropped dead. But the Hunger was not appeased. How could it be when they offered only life? It needed magic.
Four more men moved at the edge of the Hunger’s senses. Three backed away, wide-eyed with fear. It was easy to beat and capture a boy, especially one too frightened of his own magic to use it to defend himself. It was easy to tie him up and torture him with the constant agony of enchanted copper. Even watching him scream while they force-fed him mages and witches had been entertaining.
Facing him now, with the darkness inside him unshackled and hunting, was not so easy. In fact they were terrified.
The Hunger didn’t care. It had no use for revenge, satisfaction or pity, all it knew was the gnawing need for magic. These men had none. They were useless.
Three tendrils whipped out; three more bodies hit the ground.
The fourth was already gone, fleeing towards the horses while the Hunger stalked it. Until the figure pulled its own copper chain from beneath its cloak and held on tight. The enchantment slipped over his skin like armour and the Hunger howled.
“No.” Gasping, Arien forced his fingers to unlock, whimpering as the metal embedded in his flesh cooled and loosened. He flexed his trembling hands and dropped to his knees as the copper fell away. “Sweet stone, no.” His burned hands reached out to break his fall as the strength left him.
Cool earth met his touch, and he sighed with relief as the natural magic of the world flooded in to fill the void. Stronger than the Hunger, it wrapped the emptiness in its peaceful glow and Arien surrendered to the sweet flood.
* * *
“STAR AND STONE, did you ever see anything like it?”
“No, and if the mountains are kind, I never will again.”
“Mages. Mighty impressive, even useful in a tight spot, but I tell you I’m as happy as not to have little to do with them.”
Hawk heard the mutters of his guardsmen as he ran across the camp to Arien. Dropping his length of copper, he flexed his hands and waited for his magic to return before brushing his fingers against the boy’s face.
He was sleeping. Nothing more, nothing less.
Sitting back on his heels, Hawk sighed and closed his eyes. He felt oddly weak now that the first wave of worry had passed. His magic was the merest trickle. He didn’t like the feeling; it left him vulnerable.
A light thump heralded Cyrus’ arrival on his shoulder, the sparrowhawk’s wings trembling as he pressed against his mage’s neck. He didn’t like it either, Hawk guessed, and reached up to soothe him. Burn scars pulled on his palm and he grimaced. He’d grown too used to the worst of his hurts healing almost as soon as they’d been inflicted. Mountains, he couldn’t wait for his magic to come back.
“Is he all right?” Pale and swaying herself, Sidony crept across the open space to Hawk. The steady flexing of her hands showed she was in pain too. Hawk itched to heal her.
“Sleeping,” he assured her. As a tiny spark of magic formed inside him, he used it to check Arien again. Yes, sleeping.
Sidony shivered. “I’m not surprised. If I had something like that inside me I’d sleep as much as I could too. Maybe then I could pretend it was a dream.”
Wrapping an arm about her shoulders, Hawk gave her a comforting squeeze while Irissa released the guards. They were stiff and sore, angry and grieving. They also kept well away from the trio of young mages.
Hawk held Sidony a little tighter and looked at the powerful stranger who’d been the cause of both their capture and release. “He’s going to need friends.”
Sidony reached out a pale, burned hand and took hold of Arien’s. “He already has one.”
Hawk took the other hand. “Two.”
She grinned. “Poor lad, he doesn’t stand a chance.”
More next week.
Thanks for reading.