„Bloody, snivelling mage!", Bishop cursed, after the back of his head hit the ground with a painful thud. "Can't he renew his spells before they expire? Damned good-for-nothing spellslingers!"
Lana repressed a snicker at his fury and looked around. It had started raining again during the night, and water was dripping from the trees that surrounded them, making for a constant, soft noise. The air smelled clean and fresh, the scent of moist earth and leaves was prominent in Lana's nose.
The kind of earthy scent she had come to associate with Bishop.
Her amusement dwindling, making way for the heaviness that somehow seemed her constant companion by now, she stood and looked around, searching for Khelgar and Sand. The elf was nowhere in sight, but she could see the dwarf sitting some yards away, his back to a tree, a broad grin on his bearded face as he regarded the swearing, bound man on the ground.
Lana walked over to him and set down at his side. He nodded in greeting, but did not say a word.
"Where's Sand?", Lana asked.
Khelgar shrugged. "Back at the Keep. He had a look at our friend there this morn", he pointed his chin in Bishop's direction, "and said he'd need some books from the library. Said he'd jump over and be back soon." He snorted. "We all know what "soon" means when that bookworm gets close to anything with a back and a cover and pages in between."
Lana smiled. The dwarf was not wrong. If Sand got lost in some book, his return could take a while. But if he brought back something that helped, it was well worth the wait.
"So, why are you sitting outside in the rain?", she asked, curiously.
The dwarf harrumped. "Keeping meself away from temptation", he grumbled.
Lana looked at him in surprise, not getting his meaning. Khelgar shrugged and indicated once more in Bishop's direction.
"Blasted turncoat over there. Lying all helpless and nicely bound, so all it would take was one righteous blow to his ugly noggin'. 'Twas more than one dwarf could take, all the more when he kept staring at me with those eerie eyes of his. Daring me to do it, I tell ye. And I was in a right mood to, either. So I decided to get some air." He glanced at Lana's face. "Knew ye would not be happy if I put him out of his misery. Even if he deserves it."
Lana clasped her hands in her lap and looked down at them. "No", she said, quietly. "I would not have been happy."
"Well, lass, I'm sure ye've got yer reasons and all, but let this old man give ye some advice: That boy is bad news. Knew it when we first clapped eyes on him in yer uncle's tavern. More, ye knew it, too. Ye've always had the good sense to keep him at arm's length. So what I can't help but wonder is: What's changed? He's still the same measly weasel, so it can't be him."
The heaviness seemed to increase in Lana's heart. "No", she said, feeling that cursed sting back in her eyes. "He has not changed. It's me. I've changed."
"Well", Khelgar rumbled. "I can see that ye're a might calmer these days. Have not bitten my nose off for sticking it where it don't belong yet, and that just shows ye. But what's that got to do with the traitor?"
Oh great – heart on heart with Sand yesterday, another one with Khelgar today… joy.
Still staring at her clasped hands, she said: "Let's just say I found out some things that made me think he deserves a second chance."
There was a slight plopping sound, just as Khelgar raised his voice. "Second chance? Don't make me laugh, lass. That bugger has used up his fourth, fifth and sixth chance long ago. Have ye forgotten what he did? Have ye forgotten how many died because of him?" The dwarf's voice seemed to gain volume with every sentence.
Out of the corners of her eyes, Lana saw Bishop raise his head from the ground and stare into their direction, his face its usual impenetrable mask.
A large bag was set to the ground next to her, and a hand squeezed her shoulder, just as the first tear fell to her hands.
"Quiet, ignoramus. She has forgotten nothing", Sand's calm voice said. "She has her reasons for doing what she does, and I for my part accept it. As you did when you agreed to help. So if you stopped trying to alert anyone in within the distance of ten miles to our presence, I for my part would be very grateful."
Khelgar glared at the elf. "And I suppose ye know her reasons, do ye, bookworm?"
"Yes", Sand answered rather smugly. "I do indeed."
Khelgar harrumphed. "Well, no one tells an old dwarf anything."
Lana swallowed. "I will, Khelgar. This is... kind of hard to talk about. But I will when we get back to the Keep."
"Well, guess I'd have to be happy with that, as it's all I'm going to get", the dwarf grumbled, but sounded slightly mollified.
"Your hut disappeared, Sand", Lana stated the obvious, desperate for a change of subject.
"Yes, well, I got delayed and it seems the duration of the spell expired", Sand said, slightly apologetic. "But I think I found some books that might be helpful. And I brougth some ingredients that I think I will need. I'll just renew the spell. Khelgar, if you could remove our guest from the place of the hut, maybe...?"
"Typical", the dwarf complained, but got to his feet. "Heavy lifting, that's all I'm good for."
"I'm so glad we agree on something at last", Sand said silkily.
Khelgar shot him a poisonous glance, stomped over to where Bishop lay and unceremoniously dragged him aside by his feet.
"Hey!" Bishop yelled, when his head connected painfully with the ground. "Watch it, stupid oaf!"
Lana could not help but giggle a bit despite her sorrows and looked up at Sand, who smiled down on her and winked once. Then he turned, chanted a few words, moving his hands in an intricate pattern through the air, and the hut reformed before Lana's eyes.
"Get him inside", Sand commanded.
"You're not dragging me through that door!", Bishop exclaimed, as Khelgar turned to the cabin, ranger still in tow. "Hear me? You're not dragging me... ow! OW! STOP IT! Bloody bullheaded dwarf!" They disappeared through the door, as Bishop bumped over the threshold.
Lana leaned back against the tree, a smile on her face as she inexplicably felt better.
She could not say how long she had been leaning against the tree, listening to the soft dripping of water all around, the sound soothing to the tumult in her soul, and the occasional chanting from inside the hut, accompanied by weird flashes of light now and then.
She closed her eyes, letting the past months pass revue in her mind, trying to come to terms with the twists her life had taken.
Losing so many of her friends. Losing Casavir, her love. Feeling trapped, suffocating in her role as Knight Captain. Taking the coward's way out, skedaddling. Meeting Bishop. Discovering she... did not hate him after all. Going back to the Keep, deciding not to run anymore.
It was all too mind-boggling to take in. She sighed and gave up on trying to understand what was happening to her and opened her eyes again, just in time to see Sand emerge from the cabin and approach her. Her heart started to beat faster.
"And?", she asked, bluntly.
"Well, I think I found the mark our dear Jaluth uses to direct her magics to him", Sand replied. "It is as I thought. There is something that acts like a beacon to magic. It was hard to find, and it will be harder to remove, but I think it is possible."
Lana sprang to her feet. "You have found the mark? What is it? Where?"
"It's something like a small, very complicated tattoo. She must have applied it without him knowing, probably while he was unconscious."
"What? A tattoo? Shouldn't he have noticed he had a new tattoo?"
I did not see any tattoo...
"Well, let's just say she put it on a part of his body he would find hard to examine", Sand said with a wry grin, pointing at his backside. "Quite the... appropriate location, I'd say."
"Well, then how come I did not..."; Lana started, and broke off, blushing furiously, biting her lip.
"Ah", Sand said, looking smug, the snicker he supressed written all over his face. "As I said, it is very small, and might be mistaken as a birthmark at cursory examination. And I would guess you were... distracted."
Lana blushed even more, and Sand took mercy on her, continuing in his explanations. "She tinkered with the Geas, but I think I will be able to undo it." He smiled, if a bit weakly. "I will have to match my will against that of the Overwizard – but since, as you know, I'm a genius, I can see no difficulties." He made a face. "I might have to give it a couple of tries, but in the end, I will manage."
Lana closed her eyes for a second in relief. "Thank you", she said, quietly, surprised at how glad she felt at the thought that Bishop could be freed.
The alternative would be... unthinkable.
Would I have been able to do what he asked me to?
She recoiled from the notion, the image of herself, kneeling in front of a bound Bishop, the dagger in her hands at his throat, making her feel sick, and was thankful that Sand hat started talking again, distracting her.
"I will have to return to the Keep once more, to get some more supplies I need, and I think I have something that might help our dear ranger to avoid the lovely Jaluth in the future. I will be back soon, and then I can perform the necessary rituals this afternoon."
He nodded at her once more and started to turn away.
"Sand...?" Lana called out.
"Yes?", he asked, eyebrows raised.
"How did you find the mark?", she asked, challengingly.
"Dear girl", he said warmly, "I sensed its magic through his clothes, of course. And then I made Khelgar have a look."
Lana broke into laughter and was still snorting when Sand had already vanished into thin air with a smug smile on his face.
Sand returned after an hour with another bag full of supplies. Lana helped him set up the scene for the ritual which he said he was "fairly certain" would free Bishop from Jaluth' clutches, while Sand unceremoniously kicked Khelgar out of the cabin, so the dwarf would not "blunder" into the ritual at a crucial time. Khelgar grumbled when he left, but Lana got the feeling that deep down, he was relieved to be away from so much magic.
She watched Sand draw an intricate pattern of lines around the ranger, who was lying on the floor of the cabin, still tightly bound, using different powders, in various colours, most of which smelled acrid or bitter. Then she helped set up scented candles at strategic points of the pattern, listening to Sand explaining which scent was supposed to invoke which power, protective, strengthening, purifying, whatever.
She had to admit she was much too nervous to take in anything he talked about. She found magical theory deathly boring at the best of times, but right now, she really had no head for it. It kind of took all her concentration and determination to keep from constantly peering at Bishop, take his hand, and try to convince him and herself that this was going to work.
This is not your friend, dimwit. Time you got that.
When they were finished, they sat on opposite sides of the pattern, which formed a slightly irregular many-pointed star, each point consisting of a different powder and a different colour. The lines of the points met around Bishop, forming something of an imperfect circle. On each point, and where ever the lines crossed, there was a lit candle. The combined smells of the powders and the candles went to Lanas head, making it swim.
She closed her eyes to shut out the scene in front of her eyes, to be able to concentrate better. She heard Sand raise his voice as he started the first of many incantations that were supposed to counter the bindings Jaluth hat placed on Bishop. Sand had said that he feared that Jaluth had twisted the Geas to strike back at everyone who tried to interfere with it, and this was where Lana came into the picture. She was supposed to sense the rising of the magic of the Geas, and to try and devour it with her own powers.
They were not sure it was going to work, but it was the best chance Sand saw. And Lana trusted in his judgement.
She listened with her eyes closed, concentrating on the feel of the magics that flowed through the room. The air got an electric quality in addition to the dizzying fumes of the powders and candles, and Lana found it increasingly hard to breathe.
Sand chanted for a long time – she felt so lightheaded she had no idea how much time might have passed – his voice gradually rising, gaining volume. And then she sensed it, at the same moment Bishop made a low, pained moan.
Something new rose, some power, dark, malicious, strong. It felt like a cold, black, deathly wave that built up in front of her mind's eye, and stood, slightly wavering, for endless moments, as if searching. She was frozen in fear, she never felt anything like it, and she felt petrified with terror, not able to do anything, like a rabbit watching the snake that was going to eat it.
Bishop's moans had increased in volume and turned into screams, and it was this what brought her back to herself just as she sensed a kind of triumphant glee from the... the thing before her, felt that it had found its mark and was about to strike. She knew that this was no mere spell, that this was something that was aware, alive in a sense, and that it basked in their terror, their pain, and in the knowledge of their imminent deaths.
Bishop was screaming at the top of his lungs by now, in agony, and Lana snapped out of her stupor, and lashed out at the darkness she so clearly saw, even as her eyes remained firmly shut. She just knew that sight – real sight – would only distract her from her target, that this was something that could only be seen without using one's eyes.
She gathered her powers around her, her hair lashing wildly into her face with the sudden wind that accompanied them, and thrust them at the thing before her, while Bishops screams turned hoarse.
No! You're not getting him... us!
Sand's chanting had risen even higher, his voice taking a desperate note as Lana sensed the darkness winding itself around the wizard, choking him. Then her own powers reached it, and she heard it shriek in her mind, as she tried to devour the magic that supported it.
She felt it spin around, its inhuman senses reaching out, searching for the new threat, the new target, and shivered when they found her. Tendrils of black despair seemed to seep into her, and a wave of hopelessness rolled over her, making her just want to give up, to curl up and die.
She gritted her teeth and fought the feeling, fought to hold on to her powers, continuing to throw them at the thing, which was still shrieking as if in pain. Sweat was beading on her forehead, the first drops trickling down her temples.
If Sand could go on while that thing was on him, so can you! Fight it! Fight! It shrieks! You're hurting it! Go on!
Bishop's cries had stopped, as if he did not have the strength left to scream anymore, and all she could hear from him were moans and gasps, as if he was fighting for air, and even those were getting weaker.
He's dying! Fight! Fight that thing!
With a determination she did not even know where she gained it from, she pushed the black despair aside and reached out to her old friend, the fury. And like a lifeline, it was there, rose in her, hot and bright, and burned away the darkness that tried to seep into her.
You can't have him! Die! Go back to the hells where you belong! YOU CAN'T HAVE HIM!
With a hoarse cry of rage that broke from her throat, she gathered all her strength and lashed out with every ounce of power she could muster, lashed out at the coils of blackness she sensed around her, just as Sands voice reached a crescendo and broke off.
With a last shriek of pain and wrath that echoed in her mind, the darkness dissolved around Lana, and the atmosphere in the small room suddenly felt much less oppressive. Everything went quiet, save for her own elaborate breathing that seemed unnaturally loud in Lana's ears.
Then there was a crashing sound, and a familiar voice swore in a language Lana did not understand, regrettably, because it sounded like a very good curse.
Lana tentatively opened her eyes and found she had been flung back from the center of the cabin, where they had performed the ritual, and lay crumpled to the floor agains the wall. She did not even remember hitting it.
The candles had gone out, and the lines Sand had drawn onto the floor looked as if they had caught fire and burned into the wood. The air smelled more acrid then ever. On the other side of the ritual pattern, Sand sat, slumped and breathing hard. Now he lifted his head, and Lana could see his face was pallid, tired and sweaty, just as hers, presumably.
Bishop lay motionless in the center of it all.
With an anxious cry, Lana rushed to her feet, fighting down the nausea that rose in her, and stumbled to his side, where she fell to her knees, stroking his face. Then she saw his chest rise and fall feebly, and the wave of relief that rushed through her left her feel weak.
He is alive.
She looked up into Sand's face and met his eyes. The elf smiled, though a bit tired. "I think we did it, my dear", he said, his voice hoarse and strained. "But it was a close call, I'd say."
"What was that?", Lana asked, her voice no less strained than Sand's. Carefully, she lifted Bishop's head into her lap and continued to stroke his hair, refusing to dwell on the strange feeling of tenderness that rose in her, and on the trembling of her fingers, as they slid through the soft mahogany strands.
"An excellent question", Khelgar's gruff voice rumbled as the dwarf stomped through the hut. "All those screams and bangs and moans, and instead of a door there's only solid darkness, so I throw myself against that but can't get through, and then suddenly it's gone and I find meself crashing to the floor. Care to explain, anyone?"
"As much as I hate to admit it, I'm not really sure", Sand said, ignoring Khelgar's snort that followed these words. "I knew Jaluth left something of a trap for anyone who tried to lift the spell, but I have never encountered anything like this. You did excellently, dear girl. Without you, we'd all be dead for sure by now."
"Yes, but what was it?", Lana insisted. "It felt... alive." She shuddered. "I can't describe it, but you know what I mean. That was no spell."
"No", Sand agreed, "That certainly was no simple spell. I think... I can't be sure, mind you, but I believe Jaluth left something of herself behind to deal with everyone who tried to lift the spell. A bit of her essence, a tiny piece of her soul." He looked at the still unconscious ranger. "He must be very important to her. He or the task she gave him."
Lana shivered, as her hands continued to stroke Bishop's hair. "His task was to bring me."
Sand nodded. "I know."
"But... why...? I mean, I played my role, and now that it's over... I'm kind of no one, you know?"
Sand shrugged and struggled to his feet. "No one knows but her. And I don't think we can pay a visit and chat a bit about her plans. We'll probably never know. At least, that's what I hope, because I really don't want to cross her path again."
"No", Lana said, tonelessly. "Me, too."
"So ye basically have no idea what's going on, have ye, bookworm? I say, little surprise there. Bah. No matter. As long as it worked and we can go home now, I don't care."
"Yes", whispered Lana, looking into Bishop's pale face. "We can go home now."
They rested the night, because none of them besides Khelgar had the energy left to walk more than the couple of steps to the next cot. Bishop still was unconscious when Lana fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
She woke the next morning with a headache and the vague memory of dreams of writhing darkness, and a heaviness in her heart.
It had worked. They had been successful. Jaluth had been beaten, and Bishop was free.
She should be happy. So why wasn't she?
They had a meagre breakfast in silence. No one seemed to feel like talking. Bishop's hands were free for the first time in two days, and he kept massaging his wrists and ankles, ignoring the distrustful glances Khelgar shot him.
Then it was time to leave. They left the cabin and Lana was racking her brain for something to say, when she saw Karnwyr slink out of the bushes, approaching his master with his tail between his legs.
Bishop sighed and crouched, reaching out to his companion. "Come here, boy", he called out softly. Karnwyr's ears pricked up, and he padded to his master, nuzzling his head into the outstretched hand.
Lana heard Khelgar and Sand retreat some steps, but she stayed, watching Bishop's bowed head as he quietly talked to the wolf.
"You did right", he said and stroked this companion's fur. "You saved me. Thank you."
Karnwyr licked his master's hand with a kind of joyful yip, then looked up at Lana with what she could have sworn was a grin on his furry face.
She smiled at the wolf, even if her heart felt so heavy, and tears were prickling in the corners of her eyes.
Bishop got up and looked at her, and she tried to look normal, tried not to let him see what she felt. Whatever that was.
"Thank you, too, Captain", he said, and his voice was strangely soft and free from his usual cynical tone. "You risked your life for me, and you really had no need to do that. So – for what it's worth – thank you."
Lana felt her eyes tear up despite her best efforts, and quickly dropped them to the amulet that was dangling from his neck, the amulet Sand hat given him to provide protection from Jaluth's scrying attempts in the future.
"Don't thank me", she said gruffly, to hide the pain in her voice. "I did not do it for you. I did it for a friend I lost."
With those words, she turned, away from him, and stepped to Khelgar and Sand who were waiting for her some steps away. She could feel Bishop's gaze in her back as he tried to make sense of her words, but she did not turn back to him, hiding her face, as the tears had started to flow down her cheeks by now.
She swallowed and took Khelgar's and Sand's hands, so the elf could bring them back to the Keep.
She was going home.
Well, this is it. The end.
I'm aware that it is not exactly what you'd call a happy ending, and that some of you probably won't be satisfied with it.
On the other hand, it's not a bad ending, as well. They are both still alive, after all.
It's kind of an open ending.
Usually, I hate those, and I never thought one of my stories might have one. But as the story progressed, and I really had to think about how it would end (because I had no idea about that until it was at least halfway done), I found that this was the only ending I could see for Lana and Bishop - to part ways.
On one hand, there's Lana - still in love with Casavir, and not truly ready to let go of that. On the other hand, there's Bishop, back to being a bastard, and not ready for any kind of relationship at all.
So this was the only kind of ending I, myself, could find convincing. And if I could not convince myself this story should have a happy ending, how could I convince any readers?
I hope you do not hate it, despite of that. If you do, however, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that after the story ended, the plot bunnies continued to breed, and that I have already a couple of chapters written for a sequel. It will be some time before I can finish that, because Kaana and me are also working on a sequel to "Of Mice and Men", and I find it hard to concentrate on more than one story at the same time. And I won't start to post it before I am positive I can finish it. I hate it when posted stories stay unfinished, and I will not add to those. But some day, there will be a sequel to this.
For now, thank you all for reading until the end, and for the encouragement I received. Nothing to motivate a writer to keep writing like a healthy dose of feedback.