Once the Eletians had gone, rumors spread through the castle like an infection. The Captain kept her lips sealed about the whole affair, but soon the rumors found substance: the Eletians were going into Blackveil and Sacoridians were going in there with them.
While the other Riders spent long nights arguing over the ramifications of such a situation, Mara Brennan also had long nights, but they were filled with accounting and ledgers and headaches too great for words. With Karigan out, those responsibilities fell on Mara who felt entirely unqualified for them. "Serves me right," she would tell herself when the numbers began bleeding across the pages. She foisted as many of those duties onto her friend as she could and now the gods were serving her retribution for it.
With an armful of reports, she headed to Captain Mapstone's office late in an afternoon. As she dropped the pile onto the captain's desk, the pages slid off and pooled across the floor, slipping beneath the desk and diving into the fireplace before she could stop them. She crouched to she pick them out of the ashes and stuck her hand beneath the andirons to retrieve a the last of them. "Perfect," she muttered, raising the reports into the air to shake the ash from them. A folded paper dropped onto the floor. Half of it had been destroyed by fire and Mara reached to toss it back into the soot, but the handwriting caught her eye. It was a letter addressed to Karigan. She set her ruined documents aside and scrutinized the message. The crest in the seal had melted off, but otherwise the wax remained intact and she realized that it had never been opened.
Her fingers toyed with the seal. What was a letter to Karigan doing in the captain's fireplace?
Mara shoved the letter up her sleeve and jumped to her feet. "Captain! I was just dropping off the reports."
"In my fireplace?" the captain dumped her own papers on the desk, eyeing Mara's blackened hands.
"Oh, some of them fell." She hurriedly gathered up the fallen pages, waving one of them to substantiate her claim. "I'm going to have to redo a few."
The captain glanced at the reports. "I see…" she said. "I hope they didn't give you too much trouble."
"Not more than usual," Mara said, the letter like coal against her arm, "but Karigan should be back soon, so she'll start doing the accounting again and you won't have to deal with my sorry attempts anymore." Mara smiled and retreated to the door. "I'll get back to work, then." She hurried through the corridors until she reached an empty hallway. Tucking the reports beneath her arm, she pulled out the letter and after a few moments of indecision, broke the deformed seal. "Sorry, Karigan," she whispered. She unfolded the letter and began to read. Even with half of the words missing, it was obviously a love letter. Mara blushed and almost put it away, but her traitorous eyes jumped to the bottom of the page and found the signature. Zachary. Zachary?
"It can't be," she breathed. She read the words again, then again. She realized that her fingers clutched the page in a vise and she released them before she tore it in half. King Zachary's words were not shy and Mara clutched the paper to her chest, shocked. "Five hells, Karigan," she muttered. Distracted, she stepped away from the wall and crashed into hard steel. Her possessions went flying.
"Oh, I am so, so sorry," a male voice said. A castle guard peered at her through his helmet.
"That's fine," she muttered. She dropped to grab the fallen papers, but the letter had fallen farther and the guard snatched it off the ground. Horrified, Mara reached for it. "Please give that back," she said. He moved away.
"What's this? You let one of your messages get destroyed?" He tsked. "Poor form, Rider."
"Give it back to me now."
He unfolded it. "Who is it for? I hope it's not important." His eyes turned to the page. Mara's heart palpitated and she tried snatching it from his hand, but failed.
"Give that message to me immediately."
He laughed. "Or what, Greenie?"
Fire boiled beneath her skin. Or in three seconds your face is going to look like mine, you little cockroach.
A shadow passed her. Weapon Fastion stopped a breath away from the man's face and wordlessly held out a hand. The guard gulped. "I was just messing with her," he stuttered. "Here, I wasn't even going to read it." He dropped the letter into the Weapon's palm and retreated, swearing, but then ran when Fastion took a step in his direction. Mara watched the man's craven escape with a furious glare.
"I would not have intervened," Fastion said, handing the letter to her, "except I feared for the reputation of the Green Riders were you to light a castle guard on fire." She couldn't be sure, but she thought he was smiling.
"More like childish bullies," she said. Very aware of the significance of the message she had found, Mara tucked it safely into her vest pocket. "If only they respected us as much as they do you."
"They fear us, merely." His eyes swept over her. "And I imagine if they knew what you were capable of, they would fear you as well."
Mara fussed with her hair. He continued, "I could use your assistance, however, if you're willing to help me in return. If you have time, that is."
Her hand closed around the message. "Yes, I have some free time." As she followed the Weapon into an obscure hallway, her thoughts wove around and around the letter in her pocket. It would be a simple matter for the king to give the letters to the captain, no one would suspect that, and then again a simple matter for her to give them to Karigan. Or, in this case, to destroy them. However, she couldn't be sure the captain had intentionally burned the letter. Perhaps it had fallen into the flames as easily as her own reports had? The king had mentioned 'other letters.' Had any of those made it to their intended recipient? Mara could not imagine the captain encouraging an affair between a betrothed king and one of her Riders and her earlier sense of betrayal began to dissipate. There was a good chance the captain had intentionally burned his letters, if only to protect Karigan.
Sadness washed over her. My dear friend, do you love him too?
Mara started. Fastion, a few paces before her, had stopped. "What?" Mara said.
"Are you all right?"
He continued to stare at her. She stared back. Finally he said, "We're not quite there yet, but if you've something else to do..."
"Oh!" She must have stopped walking in the middle of her thoughts. "I'm so sorry. No, let's keep going." She fell into step beside him. "Don't tell me you've found Karigan somewhere back here," she said, brushing aside a cobweb.
"I'm afraid what I've found is not quite as exciting." He commandeered a torch from the wall. "It's just a little farther."
The temperature plummeted as they plunged deeper into the bowels of the castle. She almost asked him what he had been doing back here in the first place, but tossed the question aside when she recalled his penchant for exploration.
He asked, "From your traveling, have you become familiar with animals?"
"Familiar enough," she answered, "but I'm not an expert if that's what you're asking."
He stopped walking and raised the torch. "Have you ever seen anything like this?"
The firelight illuminated a pile of what she initially thought to be rubbish, but upon closer examination she realized it was something much different. She and Fastion crouched down.
"Is that…skin?" It looked like it had been shed, like a snake's.
He began separating the pieces out with a knife. "Do you recognize this animal at all?"
"I've never seen anything like this before. How many are there?"
"Right here there's three, but these are the only first we've found up top." He seemed about to say more, then he closed his mouth and frowned. The suggestion in his words, however, was enough for Mara to deduce that this was a bigger concern than he would say.
"But no one's seen the creatures themselves?"
His face was grim in the torchlight. "No."
"Are they causing any problems?"
Again the frown. "Nothing serious."
A scream ripped down the hallway. Fastion's sword flashed in the torchlight and he was gone, running before Mara had even determined from which direction the sound came. She followed the bobbing flame he carried, barely managing to keep it in sight. She heard his shout and the pained cries of whomever had screamed and reached him as he leaned over a young woman in a white maid's frock.
"Please," she sobbed. Blood spread through her dress. "I got lost. Please help me, please!" Her body convulsed.
"Stay with her," Fastion said and left them without preamble. Mara whipped flames up around her hand.
"Can you tell me what happened?" she said, trying to find the source of the blood.
She gasped through her cries, "It jumped on me. It jumped on me!" She screamed again and Mara could see her muscles constricting throughout her body. She fought to untie the maid's apron and pressed the fabric against the seeping injury in her neck.
"What's your name? Tell me your name." She watched helplessly as the girl's movements slowed. Her hand grasped Mara's sleeve.
"Maret," she whispered and her body stilled. Mara's fingers found a slow heartbeat, then she lifted the apron and looked at the injury. She'd been bitten.
"Nothing serious, my ass." Mara rested the maid's head on her lap, keeping a steady flame going to keep her warm.
Fastion appeared a short time later, his sword sheathed and his expression one of rare frustration. "Did you find anything?" Mara asked. He didn't answer. Instead, he dropped to one knee and tore the apron from the girl's neck. With a frustrated grunt, he jerked a hand through his hair. Mara returned the makeshift bandage to the injury. "She needs help."
"No, I can feel her heartbeat—"
"If she's not dead yet she soon will be." He passed the torch to Mara and lifted the maid into his arms.
"Ben can help her."
Speechless, Mara followed him as he hurried to the Mending Wing. Upon their arrival, Ben ushered them into a room and rushed to find Master Mender Destarion. Upon seeing the girl, the Mender blanched. "This isn't a Weapon."
Ben leaned over the maid's neck, blue magic weaving around his fingers and into the bite wounds. After a moment, he jerked his hands back, his face distressed. "It's still not working."
"Destarion, have you made any progress with a cure?" Fastion asked.
"No." The Mender rested his hand on the girl's forehead. "Ben, fetch the poor thing some trin weed. It should ease her pain." As Ben followed the order, Destarion turned to the Weapon. "If those little monsters have come up from the tombs, it's only a matter a time before we see more like her in here."
Mara, standing quietly in the corner, tried to read Fastion's expression, but his face remained closed. Destarion sighed. "I expect it's time we inform the king. Come, let's discuss." He and Fastion stepped out of the room.
"Ben, what in Aeryc's name is going on?" Mara hurried to Ben's side. "What did he mean, 'come up from the tombs'?"
Ben cleaned the maid's bite and bound it with herbs. "Apparently," he said, "there's some sort of infestation down below."
"I've never seen one of them, but I've heard the tomb guards describe them." He plopped into a chair. "They're some kind of rodent."
"Venomous mice?" Mara laughed. "Sounds like something from Blackveil." Even as the words came out, she realized that was very likely where they were from.
"I normally can stave off the spread of poison, Mara, but I can't do anything against this. The Weapons came to me a few days ago and took me down to the door of the tombs. I guess enough of them had been bitten that they became desperate enough to ask me to help."
Black Shields loathed magic and Mara agreed that it would take a lot for them to request Ben's assistance. "What does it do? The poison, I mean."
Ben sighed and took the maid's hand in his own. "It hurts them at first, makes their body convulse and seize up. Then it paralyzes them. They stay like that for a while, sometimes even up to a day. And then…"
Mara gazed down at the girl's quiet face. "How many have died?"
Ben looked miserable. "I've watched two Weapons perish. I don't know how many before them."
"Aeryc preserve us," Mara whispered.
"You should go, Mara. There's no reason for you to stay here."
Mara touched the dying girl's sleeve. Her encounter with the wraith had taught her how devastating the evil of Mornhavon could be and she dreaded to think that it had spread this far and in such a malicious form. "Her name is Maret," she said. "She got lost in the back hallways."
Ben bowed his head. "I'll try to help her again."
"Don't exhaust yourself, Ben. You've done what you can." She patted his shoulder and left.
In the course of the next three days, two more civilians fell victim to the castle's vicious new inhabitants. Captain Mapstone pulled her Riders together to inform them of the danger, but also to urge them to keep quiet in order to avoid mass panic. The king, she said, was refusing to leave the castle himself, but he worked with his advisors and the Black Shields to find ways of moving unnecessary bodies into Sacor City to continue their work there. In the meantime, Green Riders and all military personnel were to remain aware and cautious, but by the gods if the opportunity arose to catch one of the little bastards alive, they were to take it without hesitation or thought to their own lives.
"I suppose it's our duty," Yates Cardall mused in front of the common room fire the evening of the fourth day. "Although I can think of plenty of other ways I'd prefer to die than to be bitten by an evil mouse."
"Do you think it hurts?" Thea, a new Rider of only a few days, asked in a small voice, curled into a tight ball in her chair. Yates dazzled her with a winning grin.
"They wouldn't dare harm someone as sweet as you," he said. "Besides, Fergal here would happily sacrifice himself to keep you safe." He turned his smile to Fergal, whose expression clearly indicated how incredibly unhappy he would be in such a situation. He had been sick for over a week and tonight was one of the first he had been seen outside of his room and he slumped in his chair looking every shade of miserable. Despite it, Thea seemed comforted, however she still wouldn't put her feet on the ground.
Mara, sitting in a seat isolated from the others, held the king's message in her hand and stared at the wall, too deep in thought to pay attention to the conversation going on around her. She tried to reconcile this sensitive author with the sovereign she served and found herself more and more convinced of his sincerity, although she thought his execution was a little murky. She wondered if Captain Mapstone's destroying the letters kept Karigan completely in the dark or if her friend was aware of the king's feelings already. If she was, for how long had she kept it a secret?
"…although Mara would never tell."
Mara blinked at Yates, who stood over her. "What?" she said.
He glanced at the message. "We were just wondering what's got you so distracted."
Fergal muttered, "He's the only one wondering."
Mara tucked the letter into her pocket. "Nothing." She stood. "I need to get to bed."
"I'm not going to tell you what it is, Yates, so don't—"
"Mara!" He grabbed her shoulders and yanked her back against his chest. He threw his hand over her mouth to silence her protests, his eyes wide as he stared at the shadowed walls.
Mara pulled his hand away. "What is it?" she whispered.
His gaze flicked from corner to corner, then up to the ceiling. "Rats."
"Are they in here?" Thea shrieked. "Where are they? Are they above me?"
"Fergal?" Yates called. Mara glanced at the young Rider and saw him doubled-over on the floor, groaning. For the first time, it occurred to her that it was the rats that were making him sick.
"He's not going to be much help," Mara said. She squinted through the darkness. "If you tell me where they are, I can try to get them."
Yates carefully turned her. "There's three in that corner," he whispered. "Then there's one over there and one up in the corner on the ceiling."
Mara raised her hand and coaxed a tiny flame out. She and Yates both flinched when it ignited. "It's been an honor, Mara," he murmured in her ear. She nodded, then hurled flames at the corner. One small white shape bolted across the floor while two others screamed and writhed in the fire. Mara followed the escapee with her hand and blasted it just as it dove beneath a chair. The chair erupted in flames, but the rat kept running, heading in Fergal's direction.
"Fergal, get up!" Yates shouted. Mara aimed at the escaping rat again and managed to scorch its back legs, sending it rolling across the floor. Fergal produced a knife and with a flick of his hand, the rat was dead, the blade embedded in its neck.
"Where are the others?" Mara said, searching the room.
"One of them ran behind the bookshelf, but I don't know where the other one is."
Mara saw the rat between the books just before it leaped for her face. She tripped backwards, fire pouring from her hands like a river and she felt the creature's body smack into her palm. It fell to the ground and she dropped down next to its smoking body.
Mara turned in time to see Fergal hurl another knife, but he missed the last rat as it flew through the air and landed on the seat of Thea's chair a heartbeat after she threw herself to the floor. Fergal groped for another knife, but the rodent already leapt at the sobbing Rider.
"Gods, no!" Thea cried, throwing her arms over her face. Mara looked away, waiting for the inevitable screams, but the room fell silent. Then Yates began laughing. Shocked, Mara glanced up. Thea lay on her back on the floor, still weeping. The rat, however, floated a handspreadth from her face, dangling in the air as if held up by a string. It hissed and spewed and clawed at her, but otherwise could not move. Yates' laughter became hysterical.
"Is that her doing that?" Fergal cried.
"Kill it!" Thea shrieked. "Kill it, kill it!"
"Don't kill it!" Mara scrambled to the Rider's side. "Thea, whatever you're doing, keep doing it."
Thea kept sobbing.
"Yates—Yates! Stop laughing! Fergal, do we have a cage? Or a box? Something to put it in?"
"I think I've got something." Fergal dashed out of the room and returned with a small chest. "I saw Garth with this earlier. The latch is broken, though, so you have to hold it shut yourself."
Mara took it from him. The rat's hisses crescendoed as she carefully closed the chest over it. "Thea, I want you to stand up and carry this—"
"No! No, no no—"
"Thea, you're controlling it. See, it's not even moving inside the chest. We're going to take it to the Black Shields and they're going to take it away, but I need you to carry it to make sure it doesn't get out."
Thea sniffled and Yates appeared beside her, producing a handkerchief. "Look at you crying when you're the one who stopped it. That rat can't do anything against you." A smile emerged through her tears.
"Do you think so?"
He grinned. "Oh I do."
She giggled. "I mean, I guess it did look kind of funny floating in the air like that." She blew her nose, then grabbed the chest with unexpected enthusiasm. "I'm ready."
"Yeah, and we'll just clean up in here," Fergal said as the two young women left. "It's not like the bookshelf is on fire or anything..."
Mara led Thea through the castle. With it being nighttime, she wasn't sure where she could locate the nearest Black Shield and finding none in the throne room, she decided to head straight to the upper floors toward the king's chambers. Thea maintained her hold on the chest and the rat inside without too much trouble. In fact, she didn't appear to exhibit any of the usual side effects of using her newfound ability. Yet.
They turned a corner. A Black Shield stepped in front of them and Mara feared Thea would drop the box in her shock. The Weapon was not alone and peaking around the woman's shoulder Mara saw King Zachary himself for the first time since she discovered his letter. For a brief moment, she forgot the rats and their ranks and stared at him, at his face, his eyes, trying to see the man who claimed to love her friend.
The Weapon's voice snapped her out of her trance and she bowed deeply, face flaming. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. We—" She looked at Thea, who gaped at her. "We caught one of the rats."
Surprise crossed King Zachary's features and he stepped forward, but Fastion emerged from the shadows to block him. "It's alive?" the king asked, unruffled by his guard's interference. "How did you manage?"
"They were in our common room, Your Majesty. We killed four of them and then Thea—well..."
Thea was happy to pick up the story. "The last one tried to jump on me, Your Majesty, but I moved out of the way just in time. It tried to jump on me again, but that's when I—" She halted and shot a nervous glance at Mara. "I, um, stopped it."
The king's smile was kind. "I look forward to learning more about the nature of your ability, Rider."
She beamed. "I didn't know what it was before now. See, when it jumped on me it just stopped and floated in the air above my head. Mara closed the box over it and I've been the one to keep it from getting out." She gestured with one hand. "I think I can control its movements a little bit—"
"Thea!" Mara cried, but it was too late. In her distraction, Thea must have released her ability. The rat forced its way out, master of its own body once again and jumped from the chest. Fastion's knife flashed, but the creature shot like an arrow past the Weapon's blade. Mara watched as if in a dream as it hit the ground, then pushed off its powerful hind legs once again. Fire whirled into her hands and she dared to use her magic, but her attack came too slow. The rat latched on to King Zachary's leg, opened its wide jaw, and bit him, two dripping fangs sinking deep, deep into his thigh. He cried out and Mara saw him grab the creature and heard its body break in his grip. Weapons appeared on all sides of them, but before they reached him the rodent's stomach suddenly burst and a white light flashed in the narrow hallway, blinding all who watched. Mara rubbed her eyes and when she could finally see, she saw very clearly that the king was no longer there.
As the Weapons reacted, Fastion whirled on Mara and Thea. "What was that? What just happened?"
Thea blubbered without answering. His expression ugly with rage, Fastion brought his face very close to hers. "You'll answer to me, Rider." Before Mara could stop him, he half-dragged, half-carried the hysterical girl away. The other Weapons drove Mara out of the hallway, but she did not need them to kick her out. She raced to Captain Mapstone's quarters, for the first time truly afraid of the wrath of the Black Shields.
Karigan stumbled into Condor, buffeted by yet another freezing gale. Cursing, she pulled her coat tighter around her neck and strove forward. She knew an inn waited for them ahead on the road, although she had expected to reach it hours ago before the temperature plummeted and the winds rose. Rain like shards of ice barraged them and forced Karigan to dismount and lead her miserable horse onward.
Lightning flashed, followed immediately by a massive rumble of thunder. Condor halted, ears erect and nose trembling as he stared at the road before them. Karigan tugged on the reins, but he tossed his head and stepped backwards. Karigan huffed and squinted through the rain. "There's nothing there, you great oaf. Come on."
The road ignited in blinding white light. Karigan threw her arm over her face, gaping as the light, brighter than any lightning, stretched into the trees and it was as though for a brief moment she stood in the white world between realms. Then it sucked back into itself, pulling away from the surroundings until it vanished into a single point on the road. Karigan blinked her bedazzled eyes and when they finally adjusted, she saw a figure collapse on the ground. Karigan's heart stilled. King Zachary Hillander reached one hand out to her, then his arm dropped and his voice rose in a wrenching, agonized cry.
Karigan raced to his side and skidded to a muddy halt beside him. Blood fell in rivers down the king's leg and he clung to her as violent spasms rocked his body. "What happened?" she cried, "What are you doing here?" Almost sobbing in agony, his response was unintelligible. Karigan swore and tried to lift him to walk, but his weight dragged her back into the road. Swearing again, she called for Condor. When he appeared she grabbed his reins and tugged until he yielded and knelt in the mud. She struggled to push the king into the saddle and despite his pain, he curled his arms around Condor's neck.
Karigan led the gelding through the rain as quickly as she dared, leaving one hand on the king's shoulder. She felt his movements slow, heard him fall silent, but even when he became completely still she did not dare to stop. The possibility of this being a nightmare did cross her mind, but she didn't waste time nursing that idea. The lights of the inn appeared ahead of her and the ostler hurried to them when they entered the yard.
"Help me," she said.
The king almost fell to the ground, his dead weight taking them both by surprise. Together they carried him into the inn where the proprietor led them to an empty room. They rested him on the bed and Karigan searched for his heartbeat with trembling hands. Finding it, she moved to his leg and with a knife tore open his trouser leg, exposing his injury.
"Five hells…" the landlord muttered. Karigan's eyes raised to his face.
"Do you have a mender here?" she said, her voice masking barely contained panic.
"I'll fetch her," the ostler said, but the proprietor grabbed his arm.
"Not Marli," he urged.
"This man is dying, Ainsley." The ostler dove out of the room. With a despairing glance at the king, the landlord lingered in the doorway, then left. Karigan wadded up a bedsheet and pressed it into the swelling wound, taking deep breaths to steady herself. A woman whom she later found out was Rena, the proprietor's wife, brought in water and rags. She offered Karigan a sympathetic smile, but not much else. By the time the door opened next, Karigan's nerves were such that she jumped to her feet, but the mender pushed her out of the way. A tall woman, Marli dripped energy and she threw off her cloak as she leaned over the king's injury. "What bit him?" she said.
Karigan stuttered, "I'm not sure."
Marli dumped her bag on the floor and pulled out supplies. Her gaze swept over the king's body. "We need to get him out of these wet clothes." She produced a knife and tore his trouser leg open from hip to ankle. Karigan's face flamed as she fumbled with his shirt.
"Ainsley," Marli shouted. "I need a fire in this room."
The proprietor appeared with wood in his arms, but his expression was dark. "Anything else?" he said when his task was complete.
"Just that for now, thank you."
He left, clearly irritated. Karigan stood at a loss, holding the king's shirt without knowing what to do with it.
"Karigan," the Rider offered.
"Karigan. Stay by his head, follow his heartbeat. He's been poisoned by something. It looks like a snake bite, but—" She sighed. "I wish you knew what bit him."
Karigan sunk into a chair. After cleaning the bite, the mender concocted some kind of balm and as she mixed it in her bowl, Karigan thought to see tiny green sparks within the ingredients. She looked away, then looked again. The lights flickered as Marli crushed the herbs.
Marli's eyes flicked up to meet Karigan's. They stared at each other, Marli's gaze rich with challenge. Karigan said, "Will that stop the poison?"
The mender's lips twitched. "We'll see."
The room fell silent. Marli was not inclined to conversation and Karigan watched her, her hands wringing and twisting the king's shirt until she used it to cool his heated forehead. Death dusted his face, made his eyelids dark and his lips pale.
Marli erupted into frustrated oaths and she tossed the bandages aside.
Dread filled Karigan's gut. "Can I help? What can I do?"
Marli favored her with a scornful glare. "Keep cooling his head, I'm sure that's helping." She threw her cloak on over her shoulders. "I'll be back." Then she was through the door and gone. Left alone, Karigan did continue cooling his forehead since she didn't know what else to do. Her hand crept to his. She'd only ever touched him once, if tackling him to protect him from an animated suit of armor really counted and she boldly let her fingers brush his.
"You are not allowed to die," she told him. Just imagining the ramifications of his death made her heart palpitate. "We need you too much." She glanced at the bite on his leg. The puncture marks had vanished as the venom ate through his skin, leaving raw, bleeding flesh that glistened with the various balms Marli had rubbed into it. She said, "When I was taken by that bug creature from Blackveil, its blood burned my wrists and poisoned me. I haven't felt pain like that since then." She bit her lip. The Eletians saved her life then and she wished one of them would show up now. Too anxious to sit still, she refilled the bowl of water Marli worked with and organized the chaos of medical supplies on the floor. When she heard the door open, it was all she could do not to run to meet the mender.
Marli's entrance sent raindrops scattering over all surfaces. "Make yourself useful," she said, dropping her cloak on the floor and popping the cork out of a flask she held. "Drip this into his mouth." With a troubled sigh, she said, "This venom is powerful, Rider. It's more than just an animal bite."
"What do you think it is?"
Marli produced a bundle of plants and raised the glass over the lamp. "You'd rather not know, I'm sure." The herbs ignited and she dropped them into her bowl. They worked until dawn, Marli's tireless efforts giving Karigan the only hope she dared hold onto. Rena showed up at some point with food, which Marli ignored, however Karigan nibbled at it and exhaustion chose that moment to settle over her. She slumped in her chair and watched Marli wrap the king's leg one last time. "I've only used this mushroom once," she said. "Its effects are potent, but so was this poison."
Karigan found the king's pulse again and looked into his face. His skin was still pale, but he released a soft sigh and shifted where he lay. Karigan didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"I need to get home to make more of the medicine. Keep giving him this drink, but if something goes wrong, fetch me immediately." Marli stood and stretched. Smiling, she added, "That was exciting," then took her cloak and exited the room, leaving her supplies as they were. Karigan returned to her chair. She could finally see the king's breathing and a slight pucker had formed between his brows. Relieved, she found herself unable to hold her head up. She rested it on the edge of the mattress and fell asleep instantly.
She awoke with Rena patting her shoulder. "It's almost evening, Rider," Rena said. "We've got supper ready, if you'd like some."
Karigan groaned as she straightened her spine. The king fidgeted in his sleep, sweat beading on his skin and soaking his bedding. The fire had died long ago, but his skin radiated with heat.
"We've another room available if you'd like it. It's got two beds."
"Thank you, but I'd rather not move him just yet. A pillow and blanket will do just fine for me." To Rena's dubious expression, she added, "I've slept with much less before, I promise." Acquiescing, Rena brought the amenities as well as a meal. Karigan ate quickly, then dripped more of the potion down King Zachary's throat. He reacted this time: she could see his mouth move in response to the liquid and his eyes flicked relentlessly beneath his eyelids. He tossed his head, lost in some dream and Karigan found herself watching his features. In sickness he released his hold over his expression and she watched the play of emotions across his face with much fascination. Then she realized she was staring at him and she dropped to her makeshift bed on the floor, curling up beneath the quilt and willing herself to sleep.
His voice woke her up. Standing, Karigan found him struggling with the blankets, muttering and sweating, his eyes open but unseeing as he tried to climb out of the bed. Karigan grasped his arms. "Stop, stop," she said, pushing him back into the mattress. "Go back to sleep." He fought her, his mumbles escalating into incoherent ravings. Karigan abandoned propriety and climbed up onto the bed to try to contain him. His skin blazed with torrid fever and she considered shouting for help as the king, stronger than her even in his hallucinations, wrestled for his freedom. He almost threw them both off the mattress and Karigan managed to plant both her feet on the ground, her head buried in his chest and her arms about his waist as she threw her weight against his.
"Please, go back to sleep!" she said. She glanced at Marli's supplies, but had no idea what, if any of it, would calm him down. "You're safe," she said. "Please stop. It's me, Karigan. Karigan G'ladheon. Please, Your Majesty, calm down!"
His legs collapsed beneath him. "Karigan," he breathed.
"Yes, yes that's me. You're badly hurt, you need to rest." She lifted her hands from his bare skin.
"Karigan," he repeated. His face was close enough to hers that she felt the heat from his fever on her cheeks.
"I won't let you go," he said. Karigan pried his fingers from her arms.
"Please let me go," she said.
"No, no…." His forehead dropped onto her shoulder and his body relaxed. Grunting against his weight, Karigan pushed him back onto the mattress and he sank into it, his features pale and his breathing quick. Catching her own breath, she covered him with a blanket and it was then that she saw the young man hovering in the doorway.
"Do you need help?" he said.
"How long were you standing there?" she asked.
He shrugged. "A while. I heard him shouting. My bedroom's right above you."
He must be the proprietor's son. Karigan pushed her hair from her face. "Next time, don't ask. Just help."
He fidgeted, trying obviously to get a good look at the king but too timid to come into the room. Feeling inexplicably self-conscious, Karigan rearranged her own pillow and blanket. He continued to stare until finally he said, "You're a Green Rider?"
"You've been all over the country?"
"Do you dance?"
"Shouldn't you be asleep?" Karigan bathed King Zachary's face with the leftover water. She washed his neck next and her hand paused at his collarbone. She looked over her shoulder. The boy still stood there, staring. "What?"
"Why did you call him Your Majesty?"
Karigan threw down the rag and bore down on him. "Good night, child." She pushed him into the hall.
"You haven't paid yet and you been here—"
Karigan shut the door. There was a pause, and then she heard him shout, "You've been here a day and a half and you haven't paid anything yet." She heard his feet scuffling on the floorboards and she waited, but he said nothing more. When she finally felt certain he had gone, she went to her bag and pulled out her funds. She considered the few coins that she had. The boy had a point. Obviously the inn and mender would be well compensated once the king returned to Sacor City, but convincing them of that without revealing his identity would be difficult. She looked at the king.
"I don't suppose you brought any money with you?"
He, of course, did not respond. She sighed and tossed the pouch back onto the floor. She had enough for at least a couple days and she chose not to think past that. She gingerly lifted her sleeve. A bruise formed around her bicep. "I won't hold it against you," she told him as she settled on the ground. "I acknowledge that you were delirious and were in very little control of yourself." She stared up at the ceiling and wondered aloud, "But how in the five hells did you get here?" She remembered the flash of light before he had appeared on the road and with a sinking gut accepted the fact that conditions at the castle may not be quite what they were when she left. Too much magic, she thought as she fell asleep.
Marli came the next morning. She burst into the room before Karigan was awake. "How is he?" she said, leaning over his injury.
"He has a fever." Half-conscious, Karigan struggled to free herself from her blanket and stand.
"He had a fever," the mender corrected. "He's exhausted himself, but he is well on his way to recovery." She unwrapped his injury and smiled at it as a parent would their child. "Excellent. It looks wonderful."
It looked far from wonderful to Karigan, but she kept her opinion to herself. Marli produced a flask and poured its contents into the king's mouth. He choked and coughed, but managed to swallow on his own. She looked positively delighted. "Most excellent."
"What did you just give him?" Karigan hurried to clean the excess that had spilled from his mouth.
Marli returned her attention to his injury. "It was water, Rider," she said. "I'm applying more of the balm. Keep the linens as clean as you can, but don't unwrap it too often. I believe, however, that we are out of danger."
She couldn't have known how much danger they all truly were in and it was all Karigan could do to not hug her. Instead, she smiled and said a fervent, "Thank you."
Marli began gathering her things. "When he does become coherent, find out what bit him. I'm interested in what exactly it was that I just cured." She looked at the doorway and snapped, "What, Theodore?" Karigan saw that the boy from last night had reappeared.
He wiped his nose with a hand. "Did you heal him with magic?"
"Yes, Ted. And then I helped your mother cook breakfast and I put some in your food."
His eyes widened, but he stood his ground. "I don't believe you."
"We'll see what you think once you start sprouting scales." Marli gathered up her supplies and called, "Emmi, come help Mama. She's made a mess."
Karigan, who had been folding up her blanket, turned in time to see the top of a curly brown head vanish around the other side of the mattress. A moment later a small form crawled up onto the bed. "Did you fix him, Mama?" the little girl asked, peering at the king's face.
"Yes, I did. Here, give him more to drink." Marli passed the flask to her daughter and the girl tipped a careful amount of water into the king's mouth. He choked on it again and his eyes opened briefly. Emmi fixed her wide, blue gaze on Karigan.
"He's sick," she explained, "and when you're sick and sweaty you need to drink a lot of water." She set the flask aside and put two little fingers on the king's neck. "This is where you find the heart beating. And then you look at his eyes." She lifted one of the king's eyelids and squinted before releasing it.
Amused, Karigan said, "Why do you do that?"
"I don't know." Her mouth twisted up as she considered him. "He's very handsome." She gasped. "Mama, he's waking up!"
Anxiety burst in Karigan's gut and she watched anxiously as Emmi leaned over King Zachary's face. When his eyes did open, the girl greeted him with a loud "Hello!"
He started and all but threw her off the bed. Karigan's hands went out, but she hesitated and instead watched his confused movements, at a loss of how to help. She saw his gaze flash about the room as he tried to rise. Marli hurried to ease him back into the mattress.
"Where am I?" he gasped. Exhausted, his head dropped into the pillow. "Who are you?"
"My name is Marli. I'm a healer and I've been caring for you." She pressed her hand to his forehead. "You've been very sick from a bite. Do you remember what happened?"
He continued to search the room. "The rat. How—" His eyes found Karigan. Bewildered, he gaped at her. She raised a hand and waved.
"You've gotten through the worst of it," Marli told him. "You've been fighting the poison, but with a little more rest you'll recover soon."
"I should be dead," he mumbled, his eyes still on Karigan. She avoided his stare.
Marli answered, "You were close. The wound on your leg will take some time to heal."
Emmi smiled at him, her eyes barely visible over the mattress. He turned his head to look at her. "Hello," she whispered. "I'm Emmi." She stuck her hand up and touched his face. "You're very hot. You need to sleep." She patted his cheek. "I'll take good care of you."
Marli said to Karigan, "If you can figure out how to open the window, fresh air might do him good."
"No, the draft will make him more sick," Theodore argued. Karigan, who had forgotten he was there, wished he'd take his slack-jawed stare elsewhere.
"Is that a scale I see on your neck, Teddy?"
Ted's hand flew to his neck. He glared at Marli. "I'll tell my father."
"I'm trembling. Here, drink this." Marli held a flask to the king's lips, but he turned away. Unfazed, Marli handed it to Karigan. "This will continue to help clear the poison from his body. It may make him a bit ill, but it's better than the alternative."
Karigan accepted it graciously. She noticed the king's eyelids drooping and he seemed to drift in and out of consciousness. Whispering, she asked, "How much do we owe you for your help?"
For the first time, Marli looked taken aback. Theodore laughed. "You don't pay Mad Marli for witchcraft."
Emmi turned on him. "Don't you call my mama that, Ted Yalton!" She grabbed a bottle from her mother's supplies, but before she could hurl it Marli snatched it from her grip. Ted betrayed himself by taking a step back. Weaponless, Emmi glared at the boy with enough rage that he finally left the room with an air of cool indifference.
"Emmi, stop," Marli censored. The girl did not appear at all repentant as she smoothed what of the king's blanket she could reach. With a deep breath, Marli turned back to Karigan, "I don't require payment for my services."
Karigan gaped. "But how? You saved his life!"
"It's my pleasure to be of assistance." She indicated the flask Karigan held. "Once he's able, please have him drink that."
Karigan shook her head. "You must let us pay you. We might not have all of it right now, but he's—well, we can get all of it soon." She did not like the idea of someone with Marli's skills going unpaid: it went completely against her merchant sensibilities.
"Pay the innkeeper, Rider. In the meantime, let him rest. I'll return tomorrow." Marli led her daughter from the room, but only after the girl gave the king a fervent promise that she would return for him.
Karigan felt a touch on her leg. She noticed the king's hand reaching for hers and she pretended not to see it. "You're at an inn," she explained to him. "We're in Regen, a few days from the castle."
"How..." He groaned. Karigan stared at the flask in her hand.
"Here." She lifted it to his mouth. "You should drink this." He did so, grimacing at the flavor. Karigan made a face. "I'm not entirely sure what's in it, but Marli said it will help with the poison."
"How did she cure me?" he said, his voice fading.
"She made up some medicine. I don't know how."
"We need it," he said. He paused to catch his breath. "We can't cure it."
"I'll ask her for the ingredients."
His fingers plucked at the bedsheets. "Karigan."
She bit her lip. "I'm here," she said, but he spoke no more. With some hesitancy, she arranged the blanket around him and then settled back in her chair to wait.