Author: Scott Washburn PM
Liss returns home nearly five years after leaving without a word with her fiance, Foix, in tow. Facing her family proves to be only the start of her challenges.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Romance - Chapters: 5 - Words: 29,057 - Reviews: 17 - Follows: 9 - Updated: 02-04-11 - Published: 01-10-11 - Status: Complete - id: 6641506
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The enemy was in pursuit. The demon could not sense them, but it knew they were following. Following, or perhaps already ahead and lying in wait. It cursed its decision to return to its mount's home. It should have fled the instant it learned of the God's minion. The shock had been immense. A Shining One! Coming here! For it! There could be no greater danger. And yet the humans said it was still days away. There was time. The other demon—a minion of the minion, no less—should not have learned of its flight until the morning at soonest. It seemed safe to return to the farm to take the gold and other supplies it had hidden.
But it had scarcely arrived at the farm when it felt the spells it had laid cut off. The enemy was already there, hours early! The demon could hope that the enemy's horses had been injured by its pawns, but it could not assume that. The enemy might be already on its way. So the demon had grabbed the gold, taken a few extra horses and his mount's mate and brother and fled. The other two humans might be of use or might be an impediment. If they proved the latter, it would abandon them and proceed alone. So far they had kept up without a problem.
But the ground was growing rougher and the pace was slowing. Blast! If it had fled at once it could have taken the road south. But the enemy had started closer to the road than it had. If it had tried the road there was too great a risk of running into their arms. There had been no choice but to go cross-country. The enemy would take the road and get ahead. Try to intercept it before it could cross the mountains into Darthaca.
Well, they could try. The demon would not give up without a fight.
Foix groaned as he swung himself down from his horse. The poor beast was foam-flecked and shaking with fatigue. They had come over fifty miles from Teneret and it wasn't even noon. Dawn had just been breaking when they left the farm after a hasty farewell and a few last-moment additions and subtractions to their baggage. Then they had galloped back to the courier station in the town as fast as their horses could manage after nearly a full night on the move.
The dispatcher was still quivering from Foix's last visit and he had hardly even protested when they snatched up his ten best horses for the next stage. They left a quickly penned note for Ista and another for Hennri when he arrived and then it was off again. He, Liss, the three men-at-arms and Leandro, who insisted on coming. He wasn't sure what use Liss' older brother would be, but the man was furious and wouldn't be denied.
They had thundered up hill and down dale, hoping to intercept Toma along the way. But there had been no sign of him and they met several people headed the other direction and none of them had seen him either. He might be taking some other route, but it seemed unlikely that he had gotten ahead of them on the road.
Now they had reached the next courier station and several men were coming out of the small barracks looking in surprise at the cavalcade that had arrived on their doorstep. "Where's the dispatcher?" cried Foix. "And don't tell me he's at the tavern or there will be the Bastard to pay!"
"I'm right here, m'lord!" one of the men answered back. He came right up to Foix and made a sketchy bow.
"Good. I need ten of your horses. Right now. Have your men shift our gear to them while we take a bite to eat and stretch our legs."
The man goggled at him. "But good ser, I can't…" he protested.
"Yes you can." Foix dug into his saddle bag and produced a sheaf of papers. He pulled two out and showed them to the dispatcher. "You recognize these seals?" The man's eyes got even wider and he nodded. "We are on urgent business for the Chancellor dy Cazarill and Royina Iselle. We require every assistance. Get the horses and bring me parchment and ink. I have a letter to write while we eat." The man seemed frozen in place. "Move!" he snapped. The man moved, shouting orders to his men.
Moments later Foix and the others were inside the station being served bread, cheese, meat and wine by a woman who was probably the station dispatcher's wife. Foix quickly scratched another note to Ista and gave it to the woman with strict instructions about delivering it. She hurried off and he looked at Liss. "So, have we out-distanced him do you think?"
"It seems so," said Liss. "To have kept pace with us he would have had to ride like the wind and those people we passed on the road would have certainly noticed."
"We can hope."
"So now what?" she asked. "The next station is at the foot of the mountains between Chalion and Darthaca."
"We go there, I think. There's also a chapter house of the Daughter's Order there. A fairly big one. We can commandeer the men and set up a line of outposts to try and intercept Toma."
"But the mountains aren't that high," said Liss, clearly worried. "Not like the Bastard's Teeth. There are half-a-dozen passes through them in this area alone. A determined man could cross at a number of places where there aren't any passes. If Toma makes it into Darthaca we'll never find him!"
"It will certainly be harder," admitted Foix. "So, we stop him while he's still in Chalion." The station dispatcher came in to announce that all was ready and they dragged themselves back outside and onto the fresh horses. Moments later they were on the road, heading south.
There was little conversation the next few hours. They had been riding since midnight and none of them had the strength for anything but staying on their horses. Foix tried to remember the last time he'd ever made such a ride—and couldn't. Liss didn't seem that tired, but this was the sort of thing she'd been doing for five years, although never with such a personal price at stake. By mid-afternoon they could see the mountains in the distance. As Liss had said, they weren't half as high or forbidding as the Bastard's Teeth, but Foix's numbed thoughts still drifted back to that epic journey to Ibra with Chancellor dy Cazaril. That ride had been slower since the ailing Cazaril could never have stood a pace like this. But the ride had resulted in a wedding, the change of a regime, and a hatful of miracles. What would be the results of this ride? The fate of Chalion didn't hang in the balance, just the life of a young man. But that young man was important to the woman he loved and that was enough. He shifted in the saddle, trying to find some spot that wasn't sore, failed, and rode on anyway.
It was nearing supper time when they reached the town of Sentrada at the foot of the pass to Darthaca. Foix had intended to stop at the courier station and then go to the Daughter's chapter, but he knew if he stopped anywhere he'd never get started again, so he went straight to the Daughter's chapter house. The road was a major pilgrimage route so it was a sizeable post since among the Daughter's Order's duties was the safeguarding of pilgrims. He was heartened to see dozens of men in the courtyard and that the place was clean and in good order.
He was even happier when the captain in charge proved to be Ser Adan dy Miron, a man he had actually met once in Cardegoss and who didn't challenge Foix's authority to call for his cooperation. Indeed, he seemed eager help: an out-of-the-way post like this must have been pretty dull most of the time. He quickly had Foix, Liss and Leandro at a table with food and drink and a map to plan strategy.
"Once I call in the routine patrols, I'll have almost eighty men here," he said. "We can alert the town watch to cover this area and I can send detachments to guard all the nearest passes. We'll corral your runaway demon!"
Eager, yes, maybe a little too eager… Foix looked at Liss and saw the worry on her face. "Dy Miron," he said, stifling a yawn, "your men have to be absolutely clear on this: the boy hosting the demon must be taken alive. Aside from the fact that he'll soon be my brother-in-law, if he's killed, the demon will simply fly to another victim—probably one of your men. Do you understand that?"
The man seemed to sober a bit. "So how, exactly, are we supposed to stop him? You're telling me the demon has some nasty powers, it can turn my men against each other? I don't want my own people getting killed."
Foix sighed. He wished he had some simple answer to give dy Miron, but there weren't any. "The first task is to find him and get the word back to me. I can parry the demon's thrusts and give your men a chance to close in and seize the boy." The captain eyed him and shook his head. He'd explained that he was now a temple sorcerer, but it didn't seem like he really believed him. And he was too damn tired to do a demonstration.
"If we can dismount him," said Liss. "Slow him down…"
"Yes," agreed Foix. "Maybe we can…" damn, it was hard to think. He could hardly keep his eyes open. He couldn't remember ever being this tired. "What I'd suggest is to post your men and have one man take all the horses and stay to their rear to keep any possible remounts out of the demon's hands. If they spot Toma, the man with the horses can run and spread the word. The others… maybe have some wood and brush gathered for a signal beacon. Your crossbowmen can try to take out Toma's horses…"
"Foix!" cried Liss.
"Well, what else can we…?"
"Ser dy Gura, Sera dy Teneret," interrupted dy Miron, "you are both exhausted. You and your men can rest while I send out my scouts. From what you've told me it seems unlikely our quarry can reach the mountains before tomorrow. Sleep now and we'll take up the hunt in the morning."
Foix didn't know what else to do and with scarcely a protest he and Liss were conducted to a room with two delightfully horizontal beds in it. Even so, sleep didn't come immediately. "Foix," said Liss from her bed, "I'm worried about sending all these over-eager soldiers after Toma. So many things could go wrong."
"I know," he answered from his own bed. "But what else can we do? The six of us can't picket the whole mountain range! Can you… is there anything you can remember about Toma that might give a clue about where he'll go? The demon isn't likely to have any first-hand experience of these regions. It will depend on Toma's knowledge."
Liss shook her head. "We didn't get very far from Teneret when we were children. I'd never been this far south until I joined the courier service. I don't think that Toma… wait." She paused and frowned.
"There was one time… I was ten or eleven… Papa took a trip south to look at a batch of horses a breeder had for sale. Leandro and Toma got to go along, but I was sick with a fever and wasn't allowed. I was so angry! And when Toma got back he taunted me for weeks about it. He was crowing about riding partway up into the mountains along one of the passes. Neither of us had ever seen mountains at that point. I was jealous for months."
"Do you think Toma might be guiding the demon to that same place?"
"Maybe. I don't really remember where it was now, but Leandro might."
"Huh," said Foix, unable to keep his eyes open any longer. "We'll ask him about it in the morning." He shut his eyes and was asleep in moments.
At some point during the night he found himself in a dream.
He stood in a room in a stone tower with bright daylight streaming in through the windows. A woman in white robes with long straw-blond hair stood with her back to him, looking out one of the windows. Before he could speak she turned and he saw that it was Ista. Or it seemed to be Ista… there was something odd about her eyes… He wanted to cry out, but she crossed over to him and pressed a finger to his lips. "I will be there soon," she said. "Listen to your bride-to-be."
Then she and the tower were gone and he woke up in bed. Liss was there, across the room, snoring faintly.
When dawn came Foix could barely move he was so stiff. Liss didn't seem quite so debilitated, but she clearly had a few aches and pains. "We need to ask Leandro about where that horse breeder and the pass were," he told her first thing.
"You think we should try to intercept Toma there?" asked Liss who was quickly braiding her hair.
"Yes. I… Liss, I heard from Ista last night."
"What?" She stared at him and lost hold of her hair which half-unwound and spilled around her shoulders.
"It was a dream, but… it wasn't like any dream I've ever had. I'm certain she was sending me a message."
"What did she say?"
"She told me she would be here soon and that I should listen to you. I'm guessing that she meant what you were telling me before we went to sleep."
"All right!" She recaptured her hair. "Let's rouse Leandro and figure out where that horse farm is! But she said she would be here soon? Even if she was able to match our ride of yesterday—which I doubt, she still has to be five days away at the best."
"Well, if we can capture Toma and haul him back north, we can meet her halfway and cut it down to two or three." He spoke lightly, but he cringed at the thought of trying to keep a frantic demon under control for several days. Well, first things first: they still had to catch him. They finished dressing and got Leandro up and had breakfast with dy Miron while pouring over his map.
"I think it must be near here," said Leandro pointing to an area west of the main road and the town. "Maybe fifteen miles off the road. I'm not sure exactly. It was a while back."
"That's near a big farm owned by a man named Ulises, if I recall," said dy Miron looking at the map. "He does raise some fine horses."
"Was that the name?" asked Foix.
"Maybe… But I'm sure that was the area. I remember we turned off the main road just as Sentrada came into sight in the distance. Papa didn't want to stay in town and have to pay an innkeeper. We camped about a mile off the road and then made it to the farm by mid-morning the next day. It has to be near here."
"And there is a pass, a narrow one, leading up from just south of there. Could be it," said dy Miron. "I was going send a half-dozen men there this morning."
"Good," said Foix. "We'll go with them."
"All right. I'll tell the other parties to send word of any sighting there as well as here."
Not long afterwards they were mounted and—painfully—riding west. The six of them and the six men of the Daughter's Order made a substantial force. They decided to go straight to their goal, cross-country, rather than ride north on the main road and retrace Leandro's path from years earlier. It was a shorter route and would also allow them to scout along the edge of the mountains in case Toma was travelling another route.
"I hope we're in time," said Liss. "If the demon made them press on through the night they might already be past us."
"If they stayed off the road yesterday there's no way they could have made the sort of time we did," he replied, trying to reassure her. "There was some pretty rough country we passed through. Even travelling all night—which would be slow—they couldn't reach the mountains before midday, I'm guessing."
"We can hope."
"They would have to stop and rest some time. The demon can only push its mount so hard before it collapses—leaving it stuck."
"So, what are we going to do if we do find him?" asked Leandro.
"I'll try to block the demon's magic so that it can cause no mischief. The rest of you will have to run Toma down and restrain him." Foix prayed that he'd be able to do his part. He knew it wasn't going to be easy. They'd equipped themselves with some cudgels that they hoped could knock Toma cold without crushing his skull. But getting close enough to use them…
"He'll run as soon as the demon spots you, won't he?" asked Liss.
"Probably. But their horses will be tired. We ought to be able to overtake them." They had gotten a new set of remounts that morning. If they could get into position and let them rest for a few hours, they would have a real edge if it came to a horse race. Even so, Foix was worried. The border between Chalion and Darthaca stretched nearly three hundred miles. They were basing all their hopes on the demon picking this one point to cross. If they were wrong they could lose Toma forever. Still, Ista had said… In a dream, you fool. He looked at Liss. Her face was set and determined. She would never give up as long as there was hope. But what if hope failed?
Once out of town, they formed a skirmish line with a few hundred paces between them so as to give them a wider look at the countryside. This made conversation impossible so they pressed on in silence for several hours until they reached a farm that Leandro thought was the one he had visited years before. There were fenced-in pastures with horses, so it was a reasonable guess. As they got closer they spotted a narrow track heading up into the hills to the south. "Yes, I'm sure this was the place," said Liss' brother.
The appearance of a large, well-armed party like theirs quickly caught the attention of the farm's inhabitants. Several men approached cautiously, but seemed to relax when they caught sight of the blue tabards of the Daughter's Order on some of the soldiers. The man in charge was indeed named Ulises and seemed willing to cooperate when told that a spy was trying to sneak out of Chalion through his land and needed to be caught. It was the simplest lie they could think of.
Quickly assessing the lay of the land and the forces at his disposal Foix devised his tactical plan and deployed his troops. Guessing that the demon would skirt the farm rather than leave witnesses to its passage, he left the farm to Ulises and his people. He sent three of the Daughter's men to either side of the pass and then he and Liss and Leandro and their three men posted themselves right in the pass, about a quarter mile up in it at a spot with a good view of the countryside. Foix didn't like being so far back, but there wasn't any choice: the demon could spot him from too far away. His hope was to draw the demon into the pass and then the Daughter's men could close in behind, trapping it and Toma and Seve in a box. They set up a simple set of signals and then settled in to wait.
Liss sat with her back to a tree, munched a piece of bread, and looked out on the rolling landscape below. She tried to force a few moving black specks to appear in the fields by sheer will, but they obstinately refused to obey her. She wanted to remain calm, but her tension steadily mounted. Something inside told her that this was their last chance. If they didn't find Toma short of Darthaca, they never would. He would be lost to the demon and maybe Seve, too. The demon might be holding Seve as a hostage for the moment, but if it did make good its escape would it be likely to let the boy go to give the alarm?
The sun rose toward noon and it was getting quite warm. The last few days had left her drained and she wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and take a nap. Foix suggested that she do just that while others keep watch, but somehow she couldn't. The feeling in her gut seemed to say that whatever was going to happen was going to happen soon. Today.
Even so, she was actually starting to drop off to sleep when it happened.
Foix suddenly stiffened and gave a small cry of surprise. Liss was instantly alert. "What?"
"It's here," he said, rising to his feet and looking to the west. "It just used its powers. Damn. Probably against the men we sent off that way!"
"M'lord?" called the man on look-out duty. "I think I can see some horses and riders. Two or three miles, I'd guess."
"Yes, it's moving this way. Fast."
"It's still coming this way?" asked Liss in surprise. "Even knowing you're here?"
"I don't think it's spotted me yet. When a sorcerer or demon uses its powers it's visible from much farther away than if they're doing nothing. It'll spot me soon enough though. Get the horses! Gerrold, try to signal the men off to the east!" Liss was in the saddle at once and the others quickly did the same.
"What now?" she asked. "Ride to meet it?"
"May as well, the trap's been sprung," Foix replied. "We might be able to close the distance on it before it's aware of me." They headed down the pass as quickly as they could on the rough ground. They were just emerging from the trees at the bottom when Foix cried out again:
"It's spotted me, but… but it's still coming!"
The demon cursed when it felt the other one ahead. Blast! With all the many crossing points of the mountains to watch, encountering it here was the foulest of foul luck. It had its mount rein in the horse while it considered options. Retreat? Try to find another way over the mountains? But the only direction to flee was back north. The Shining One would be coming from that way. And these others would pursue at every step. Sooner or later it would be hemmed in with no way out. But there was an escape route near at hand. Only one thing stood in the way…
Foix could clearly see Toma now. He was riding toward him with two other people, each leading a spare horse. One was Seve, but the other… Vilma. Toma—or the demon—or both—had brought along his wife. Foix could sense the compulsions holding them in thrall. When they got closer he would try to free them. The demon would probably try to ensorcell more people to even the odds. He would have to stop it—if he could. His stomach felt like it did when he went up that scaling ladder at Gotorget. Worse. Liss wasn't with him at Gotorget. Damn, he wished Ferda was here…
They were four hundred yards away when a purple blast of something sprang from the demon and came right at him. Somehow—he still wasn't sure exactly what he was doing—he blocked the attack, the bolt of power splashing away from him like spilled wine. But he grunted as if he'd been struck with a physical blow.
Shaking it off, he reached out and tried to cut the umbilicus holding Seve. But the demon sensed what he was trying and sent more power into the tether and Foix's attempt bounced off. Before he could try again, the demon lashed out—this time against Gerrold's horse, which screamed and fell, tumbling the soldier to the ground in a cloud of dust.
Foix cursed and attacked again. Not against the compulsion holding Seve, but against the reins holding the spare horses. The leather straps parted and the weary horses veered away and stumbled to a stop. Seve and Vilma looked back, but didn't slow.
The distance closed quickly. At a hundred yards the demon struck at Liss' horse, but the attack seemed half-hearted and faltering even before Foix slapped it aside. Was Toma fighting the demon? That would be an enormous help. Foix tried to cut the demon's compulsion again, but this time feinted at the umbilicus holding Seve and then thrust out in a move that his old swordmaster would have praised to cut the one holding Vilma instead. He could see the shock and confusion on her face as she tried to comprehend what was happening. But an instant later the demon reestablished its leash and Toma's voice shouted follow. Apparently this was just too much because the woman's eyes rolled back in her head and she tumbled out of her saddle and fell to the ground.
Foix could almost feel the demon's rage but suddenly the distance separating the two groups was down to nothing. Foix aimed his mount right at Toma and braced himself for the collision. Horses screamed, men shouted and a half-dozen purple blasts filled his vision and then he was flying through the air to land heavily in a spiny bush.
The wind was knocked out of him, but he struggled to his feet, looking for Liss, looking for Toma. He spotted Liss a dozen yards away, trying to free herself from her thrashing, downed horse. She seemed unharmed. He spun about and there was Toma, unhorsed, but on his feet. Just about everyone else was on foot or on the ground, except for Seve who desperately clung to his wildly bucking mount.
Foix faced the demon and he could sense it gathering power to strike. He braced himself. But then one of the soldiers stumbled forward, cudgel in hand and the demon sent the blast against him instead. Foix tried to block it, but it was too fast, quick as a striking snake. The man groaned and collapsed, clutching his belly as if he'd been shot with a crossbow.
Foix was still trying to pull in his breath when Toma suddenly turned and grabbed a horse that had regained its footing. The demon seemed to be wrapped in purple light like a shield and Foix didn't think there was anything he could do against it. So he struck at the leather strap holding the horse's saddle in place. When Toma's foot went into the stirrup the whole saddle just slid right off, throwing the boy down on his backside. The horse jerked free and ran off.
Suddenly Liss was there, coming at Toma, a stout stick in her fists. But the demon saw her and purple light leaped out to engulf her. "Stop!" it commanded with Toma's voice and Liss jerked to a halt a few feet away. Her hands slowly fell to her sides, her face confused.
"Damn you!" snarled Foix. "Let her go!" He reached out with his phantom hand to cut the spell, but to his shock, the demon grabbed his hand with one of its own. It was like wrestling with hot iron. Pain blasted through him and he gasped and sank to his knees. He tried to shake loose, but the demon held tight, white agony poured into him. With pain-glazed eyes he saw Toma pick up the club the soldier had dropped and stiffly move toward him, step by jerky step.
"Fool!" said an icy voice using Toma's mouth. "You will trouble me no more!" It raised the club.
Liss stared at the unfolding tableau and tried to remember what she was doing. For some reason she'd been walking toward her little brother with a heavy stick in her hands. Why? To strike him? Surely not. Why would she want to do something like that? He'd told her to stop and that made so much sense she'd obeyed. But the stick was still in her hand and for some reason she didn't want to let it go…
But wait… what was happening now? Foix, her beloved Foix was dropping to the ground! He was moaning in pain! She tried to go to him, but her feet wouldn't move! It was like they were trapped in thick, sticky mud. Move! No… stop… what…? She couldn't move, but Toma was going toward Foix-to help? But he had a club in his hand! Why? A desperation she didn't understand filled her and she wrenched one foot loose from the mud and lurched a step forward. She tried to cry out when she saw Toma raise the club, but it was like her throat was filled with mud, too. Stop! Stop! Stop!
The club flashed down and struck Foix's upraised arm with a crack that seemed to strike right through to her soul. Her feet were free! She sprang forward. Raised the heavy stick. Toma sensed her coming, turned, his own club raised. This was all so wrong, but there was no choice. She struck. The stick slammed solidly against Toma's head. He staggered back, dropping his club. His eyes, which had seemed so strange were suddenly wide with shock and not strange at all. "Liss…" he whispered.
She hit him again and he went down in a heap.
She stared at her brother in horror. But then she saw Foix, clutching his arm and she dropped her stick and knelt down beside him. "Foix! Are you all right?"
"Just a moment," he said through gritted teeth. He closed his eyes and suddenly the horrible fog that had filled her head was gone. She knew what she'd done—and why. She jerked around to look at Toma, but he was where he'd fallen. There was blood on his head, but he was breathing. "Good work, love," said Foix. "He'd have finished me but for you."
"Is that arm broken?" she asked, reaching toward it.
"Might be cracked. Hard to tell. Hurts like the Bastard's Hell."
"We'll get you fixed up. But how are the others?" She looked around. Leandro was just pulling himself out from under his horse. Seve finally had his mount under control and came trotting up looking confused, but himself. One soldier was helping his fallen comrade to his feet. The man had vomited all over himself, but seemed to be recovering. Gerrold was a hundred yards off and limping slowly toward them. Was that everyone? No. "Seve!" she called. "Go see to Vilma!" Her youngest brother nodded and rode back the way he'd come.
"What do we do with Toma?"
"Tie him up," said Foix. "Tightly. Lots of ropes. It'd be safer to do to him what he was going to do to me: break my arms and legs, but I don't suppose you'd agree to that."
"I'd… I'd really rather not do that," said Liss. "Hitting him was… hard."
"I know, I know. And you were still under his spell, girl. That took real strength. Real strength. Thank you, my gallant love." The look on his face sent a thrill through her. She leaned forward and kissed him briefly.
She set the soldiers and Leandro to work securing Toma, while she gently cut back the sleeve of Foix's tunic. His right forearm was swelling up and turning purple. He winced as she felt along it. "I can't feel a break, but you're going to have a terrible bruise. Let me wrap it up and get a sling for you."
By the time she was finished, the men had Toma wrapped in every bit of rope they could scavenge. It would have held an angry bear, but would it hold an angry demon? Seve returned on foot, leading his horse. Vilma was sitting on it and weeping hysterically. When she saw Toma she turned away and covered her face. A chill went through Liss. As the only other woman present it was going to fall to her to try and calm Vilma, but what in the names of all five gods was she going to say to her?
She was saved that task for the moment when the other three Daughter's soldiers rode up from the east and they were quickly followed by Ulises and two of his farmhands. One of the soldiers was sent off to look for their three comrades to the west while Foix explained what had happened—more or less—and they all took stock. Several of their horses had been badly hurt and Ulises shook his head while looking them over.
"We'll have to put these two down. Legs snapped clean. Strange breaks… never seen anything like this…"
No and pray the gods you never will again.
But with the two spares that Toma had brought there were enough to get them all mounted again. They fashioned a litter that could be dragged behind a horse and tied Toma to it.
"That must be one damned dangerous spy," said Ulises, looking at all the ropes.
"He is," said Foix. "But we'll take care of him now. Thank you for your help." He gave the man a few coins and sent him and his men on their way.
"So how are we going to work this?" asked Leandro. "He's going to wake up soon and I don't suppose those ropes will prevent him from using his sorcery."
"Its sorcery," corrected Foix. "Never forget that your brother has had no hand in any of this. The demon was in control." He looked pointedly over at Vilma who had finally stopped crying.
"Whatever," replied Leandro. "But I say again: what do we do when he wakes up? I suppose we could just bash him on the head again, but how many times can we do that before he don't wake up at all?"
"We'll just have to be careful," said Foix. "But let's get going. The sooner we can get him to Ista, the sooner this will be over."
"Which way?" asked Liss. "Back to Sentrada, or northeast to strike the main road as quickly as we can?"
"Sentrada. I want to get as large an escort as possible from dy Miron. The more people we can surround Toma with, the less likely the demon will be able to break free. Or at least that's what I'm hoping." They all mounted their horses and started riding east. It wasn't long before the other men caught up with them. The three they'd posted to the west had all been unhorsed by the demon, but were otherwise unharmed. They'd now recovered their mounts and were demanding to know what had happened. Foix and the others tried to explain. Liss kept looking from Toma to Vilma. The woman was hanging well back from her husband's litter. The last thing in the world Liss wanted to do was talk to her sister-in-law, but sooner or later she'd have to. Best get it over with. She drifted back to her.
"Are you all right, Vilma?"
"How can you possibly ask that?" replied the woman. She stared at her with haunted eyes.
"No, I guess that was a pretty stupid question, wasn't it? So you're not all right. How are you?"
"I don't know."
"Do you understand what's happened? About Toma and the demon that's taken control of him?"
"Partly, I suppose. I know it was controlling me somehow. Me and my whole family. I hear what your fiancé is saying, but it all seems like a nightmare now! What is going to happen to Toma?"
"We're taking him to someone who can destroy the demon. Free him from its control. He will be all right."
"How can he, how can any of us ever be all right?"
"Nothing that happened was Toma's doing. You have to understand that."
"Nothing? What about when he told me he loved me? Was that a lie, too?"
Liss sighed. "You'll have to ask him yourself once he's free." Vilma didn't answer and they rode in silence for a while. Foix looked back at her several times but she just shook her head. They continued riding as quickly as they could but they were all exhausted and some of them hurt. It was late afternoon by the time they spotted the roofs of Sentrada in the distance.
"If I'm understanding aright," said Vilma suddenly, "your fiancé also carries a demon. How can this be? How can you bear it?"
"It's complicated. And different from what's happened to Toma. Foix is a temple sorcerer. He can control his demon rather than be controlled by it."
"How do you know? How do you know he isn't just lying to you like Toma lied to me?"
"I know," said Liss firmly. "When we meet up with Royina Ista, you'll understand."
"I wish I could believe you. I wish I could believe anything!"
LIss didn't know what to tell her. She supposed that the mere fact that she was talking, asking questions was a good sign but…
With no warning at all, her horse reared up. Caught completely unaware she was thrown to the ground before she could do a thing. All around her horses were whinnying and people shouting. Foix cried: "The demon is awake!" It was, perhaps, the most unnecessary statement she'd ever heard.
Foix felt the surge of power, saw the purple lances of light, but was only able to stop the one aimed at his own horse. All around him the other horses were going wild, tossing off their riders. All except the horse pulling Toma's litter. That one started off at gallop, towing the demon and its mount behind. Foix jabbed his spurs into the flanks of his horse and began the pursuit.
Despite his less-burdened mount, he only closed the distance slowly. Toma's horse was charging recklessly forward over bumpy ground and he realized with a shudder that the demon wasn't the least bit concerned if Toma were killed. It would free it from captivity and it could flee again.
Blasts of power started coming at him and he could sense the demon also snapping the ropes that bound Toma one by one. Foix managed to parry the bolts aimed at him, but he couldn't stop the others. Well, two can play that game! He waited for a pause in the onslaught of attacks and then on a fairly flat piece of ground, he reached out and cut the cords holding the litter to the galloping horse. The litter thumped to the ground and then slid along for a dozen yards before coming to a halt.
Foix slowed his horse as he approached and braced himself for more attacks by the demon. He didn't want to grapple with it, power-against-power, like before, so he pulled his strength around him like a cloak. The only thing he could think to do was whack Toma on the head again before it could break all the ropes. He reached into his saddle bag for the cudgel…
Something slammed into him and he went down. Agonizing pain seared through him from his injured arm as he hit the ground. What the…? The other horse! When I cut it loose, the demon was still controlling it! And he hadn't noticed and it had come around and run right into him.
He tried to stand, but the horse was right there and he was knocked to the ground again. The beast circled and came at him. He could see the purple trail linking it to the demon and there was nothing he could do but try to rip control away. He tried, but it was just like when he'd tried to free Liss. The horse halted, but the pain! The demon was strong, far stronger than him. He couldn't win this fight and they both knew it.
"What… must… I… do… to… make… you… give… up?" said the demon. It was still snapping ropes, but slowly, painfully. Stronger it might be, but this was no easy fight for it, either. Foix couldn't spare breath to answer. His power faltered for a moment and the horse took a step toward him before he could halt it again. Where were the others? The mad flight had left them a half mile back, but if they could regain their horses…
Toma rose from the litter and Foix's horse trotted up to him. "I'm going to have… the horse… crush your legs," it said. "Leave you crippled… fitting punishment for a fool."
Foix's power was fading. He couldn't keep this up… The horse was moving toward him again…
But suddenly it stopped. To Foix it was like pushing against a rock wall that suddenly turned to paper. The resistance vanished and the horse turned and fled. What…?
To the east a new dawn was breaking, brighter, clearer than any dawn he had ever seen. A dazzling, blinding light streamed toward him. Toma was a black silhouette against it and inside the blackness a purple snake coiled on itself in terror.
"Spare us, Shining One! Spare us!" shouted Toma's voice.
Ista! Foix could see nothing but the light, but who else could it be?
The light coalesced around the demon and slowly, bit-by-bit pulled it out of Toma. It was agony to watch, but Foix could not turn away. The demon struggled futilely and the boy gave an animal wail, but finally the purple snake was englobed in white and then receded into the distance and vanished. Toma collapsed to the ground and the light faded. Foix found himself collapsing, too and he fell into darkness.
Liss shouted when Foix opened his eyes. He was lying on a bed in the Daughter's Chapter house in Sentrada and she sat in a chair next to him. It was late evening and he'd been unconscious for several hours. Toma was in a similar state in the next room. She turned as Ista came through the door. She started to rise to offer Ista her chair, but the Royina-Saint waved her back and plunked down on the bed next to Foix and patted his knee.
"So," she said, smiling, "how is my brave demon-fighter?"
"I… hurt," said Foix. "Pretty much everywhere."
"Understandable," replied the woman, nodding. "I only witnessed the tail-end of your battle, but even from where I was I could feel what was happening. You have some strength in you, Foix dy Gura."
Foix blushed. "It still wouldn't have been enough if you hadn't intervened. But my lady! How did you come to be here so soon? Did the Bastard put wings on the feet of your horses?" Liss was wondering the same thing herself, but Ista had refused to explain until Foix was awake.
"When your summons came we left at once. We rode hard, but not on winged horses."
"But the courier could have only reached Cardegoss a few days ago!" protested Foix.
"Ah yes, the courier," smiled Ista. "We passed him on the way here. We rode when I got your first summons."
Ista stared out the window. "There was a time when I felt that prayer was too dangerous a thing to risk. But more recently… I may have to change my opinion."
"Prayer?" said Foix. But then his puzzled expression changed to understanding. "Oh."
"Yes," said Ista looking back at him and nodding.
"Is anyone going to explain this to a poor non-sorcerer, non-saint, just ordinary courier-girl?" said Liss a bit testily.
"The night that we told your family about Toma," said Foix. "While you were out gathering everyone I… prayed to the Bastard to hurry Ista to us. I never thought he would…"
"I had quite a dream that night," said Ista. "I've come to recognize the ones I should pay attention to. This one was very vivid and we were on the road by mid-morning the next day."
"You made excellent time," said Liss, impressed.
"We reached Teneret only an hour or so after you took all the courier station's fresh horses. We set out at once, but we couldn't match your speed. We arrived here in Sentrada in mid-afternoon today. By then I was close enough to sense the demon and we rode out to meet you."
"And a mighty good thing you did," said Foix. He sighed and leaned back against his pillows and stared at the ceiling. "We wouldn't have caught Toma except for the dream you sent me."
Ista quirked an eyebrow and just smiled.
"So it's done," said Liss. "Thank the five gods."
"All except for picking up the pieces," said Ista. "Don't expect the gods to help with that."
"How is Toma?" asked Foix.
"He just woke up, too. Physically he's bruised and with a large bump on his head. But his soul is whole again and he's the master of it. Emotionally… I expect he's got some hard times ahead."
"But what about he and Vilma?" asked Liss. "Is their love genuine, or did the demon force them?"
"He loves her, there's no doubt of that. I got a good look inside of him while removing the demon. As for her feelings… well, she never left the room while he was unconscious."
"But did the demon take Toma before or after she agreed to marry him?"
Ista pursed her lips. "That, I think, is nobody's business but Toma's and Vilma's. They are going to have to work this out for themselves."
"No more buts! At least for tonight! You must be exhausted—I know I am! I am going to check on Toma one more time and then go to bed. If you have any sense you will too." She rose and left the room. Liss watched her go and then turned back to Foix.
"How are you?"
"Tired. Sore. Relieved. How about you?"
"Pretty much the same. Probably less sore. How's your arm? The divine here put it in a splint just in case there is a fracture."
Foix held it up and looked at it. "Hurts, but not too bad. I'll be fine—as long as I don't have to ride anywhere tomorrow."
Liss laughed. "No, I think we'll stay here a few days! Dy Miron is planning a fete for Ista and a lot of the local nobles are streaming in to see her already. Or so I heard. We'll be lucky to get out of here in a week."
"A week," sighed Foix, settling down in the soft bed. "Sounds good."
"And then back to Teneret. At a normal pace that will take four days."
"Five, love. Your 'normal pace' is a bit faster than everyone else's."
"All right, five. And I imagine we'll have to spend a few days there. I want Ista around to explain everything to my family—and Vilma's. We have to do that for Toma's sake."
"Surely," said Foix, nodding. "And then probably a week to get back to Cardegoss."
"Yes and then—Five Gods!" gasped Liss.
She hastily counted out the days on her fingers. "Foix! By the time we get back there will only be two weeks until the wedding!"
"Ah? Well, good."
"Good? Good!" she exclaimed. "Do you know how much we have to do to get ready?"
"There are the dresses and the food and all the guests and the Royina and the Consort will be there and, oh gods, if my family is going to come they'll have to travel back there with us and… mmph!" He reached out with his good hand and pulled her close and kissed her. He held her there for a long time.
"Tomorrow, love," he said when he released her. "Worry about it tomorrow."
"We've handled a demon, we can surely handle a wedding. Together."
She smiled. "Yes we can. Together."
Ista shifted in her saddle trying to find a more comfortable position. She'd done an awful lot of riding in the last few weeks. She watched Liss and Foix riding ahead of her, holding hands and smiled. Young and in love, what a wonderful thing. She could almost remember being young and in love. But being middle-aged and in love wasn't a bad thing either. She wished Illvin was with her. But he'd stayed up north to tend to some things. But he'd be in Cardegoss for the wedding. She looked forward to that. She hoped the wedding went well. She was really very fond of Liss and Foix. There were times when she felt a little guilty about her feelings. During those years when she'd been smothered by the Curse she hadn't been much of a mother to Iselle and Tediez. Was she trying to make up for that now with Liss and Foix? Well, she felt what she felt and there was nothing for it.
Her gaze shifted to Liss' brother, Toma and his wife. They were also riding side by side, but not holding hands. She'd noticed that while they talked, they rarely touched. Well, they had a lot to deal with and it wasn't going to be easy. From what she'd been able to piece together, the pair might be facing even more trouble from their respective families—and maybe some of the townsfolk in Teneret, too. The demon had acted as unfeelingly as demons do and all of its actions had worn Toma's face. No amount of explanation could change that. The boy might find that there was no way to go home again.
Perhaps a change of scene would be best. It certainly hadn't hurt Liss to go away. The boy knows horses. And Gorram could use an assistant… Yes, Gorram. If anyone could understand Toma's pain it would be her demon-gnawed master of horse. Well, she would see how things went for him in Teneret. If it looked bad, she could always make the suggestion. It was just lucky that Foix detected the demon as quickly as he had…
If it was luck.
The thought formed and she frowned as she considered it. What were the chances? The demon fled from northern Chalion, five hundred miles or more, and just happened to pick the future brother-in-law of one of the few people who could spot it.
Her frown deepened. For over half her life she'd been involved with the affairs of the gods. She'd seen how they used people, nudged them down roads they never would have taken on their own. In the last year, hunting demons for the Bastard, she'd been nudged or outright shoved down many a road to find her quarry. Dreams, hunches, intuition had sent her in the right direction time and again. The god was clearly guiding her.
Who—or what—else had the Bastard been nudging?
Did you do it? Did you put that poor boy in the demon's path? Or did you nudge the demon so it found him? Yes, yes, I know that if it hadn't seized Toma, it would have seized someone else and we might never have found it until the victim was eaten up completely. But still…
She cleared her mind and waited. Sometimes, sometimes she would get an answer. This time there was no answer, but she felt something. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but she felt something that she could only describe as a sort of smug embarrassment.
"Lord Bastard," she growled quietly. "I've said it before and I'm quite sure that I'll say it again: you, sir, are a bastard!"
Whatever she had been feeling vanished and after a while she turned her thoughts to other things. Illvin… Weddings… It was a long road to Cardegoss and she'd have much time for thinking.