A/N: I'm not dead!
Wow. I'm so so sorry it's been so long. I don't even know how I managed to slack off for six months. I'm sorry. Really. If you haven't given up on me yet then I love you and your patience is phenomenal. There definitely won't be a six month wait for the next chapter, I promise.
I love you guys. Don't hate me. Please?
Tigran was escorted from the office by the same warthog that had shown him in. The creature had remained planted in front of the door throughout the entire exchange Tigran had shared with the General, and as soon as it was over had sprung to its master's side like a huge dog. The General now following Tigran and the warthog from the room, walking so close to Tigran that he felt hot, stinking breath on the back of his neck. He knew without turning around that the Minotaur's hand was on the hilt of the long, curved knife hanging naked from his belt. Distrust gnawed at Tigran's own heart and no amount of anticipation could overshadow it.
The door that the warthog held open for them - with an exaggerated bow to Tigran – was so nondescript that Tigran had automatically dismissed it as the entrance to a storage cupboard. Instead, the door opened onto a seemingly endless tunnel leading forever downwards. The warthog fetched a torch and a steep staircase was revealed. The steps were so narrow and worn that Tigran slipped on the third, nearly tumbling down the stone staircase into the dark depths below. He braced his hand against the wall, but even that did little to help him keep his balance as he hurried to keep his back away from the General's knife.
An archway was at the bottom of the stairs and beyond that more darkness. With a careless gesture from his master, the warthog scurried off with his torch and began lighting candles. The flames that sparked into life were blue in colour, and even from a distance Tigran could sense an odd pulse enveloping them. The candles lit the room enough for the contents to send a chill down Tigran's spine.
A statue stood in the centre of the room, the flickering candles at its feet. It was so tall that the spiked crown atop its head almost brushed the ceiling. It had been carved from stone so pale it was translucent like ice. The candle flames created an eerie blue glow that shimmered and folded around the statue like a rippling cloak. Tigran now noticed that the floor of the room was made of earth, but not the rich, moist earth he was used to. The magic he could feel woven into the room seemed to have sapped all the nutrients and life out of the soil, leaving it dry and cracked. He felt a brief empathetic pang in his chest, but was quickly distracted again by the monstrosity towering over them.
The statue depicted a likeness so accurate that Tigran's knees buckled.
Beside him, the General stooped into a low bow. Tigran stayed frozen to the spot, unable to tear his eyes from the White Witch's piercing stare. "Why have you brought me here?"
The General eyed him smugly as he straightened. "You must swear an oath to your Queen. An oath of blood."
"And if I refuse?" He tried not to choke on the lump of fear forming in his throat. The General drew his knife. The blade glinted wickedly in the candlelight as he caressed it lovingly. The gesture conveyed the message more clearly than a spoken word.
The warthog – who Tigran assumed was the General's henchman – trotted over to stand beside his master. The creature was as tall as Tigran but still a full head shorter than the Minotaur – not including the deadly horns.
"Everything is prepared, sir," the warthog said staring at Tigran with his beetle-like eyes.
"Thank you, Tezrac."
With a sickly sweet smile, the General gestured for Tigran to walk in front of him to the statue. The Witch sat on a stone throne, leaning forwards as though about to leap up and thrust her sceptre straight through the heart of whichever servant had displeased her. She held her infamous weapon in her right hand; the butt rested by her feet (which were covered by the folds of her gown) and the terrible point touched the ceiling far above their heads.
Tezrac directed Tigran to kneel at the foot of the statue. He then placed several candles in a half-circle before him, large enough for the General to stand comfortably inside. The General stepped forward, lifted his knife as though inspecting it and spoke in a low, almost soft tone.
"This blade was forged from the remains of Her Majesty's wand," he told Tigran proudly. "The magic woven into it was broken when that treacherous brat destroyed it, but this blade is like a razor-sharp ice shard. This may hurt a little."
Tigran dug his nails into his palm and spoke through gritted teeth. "Get on with it."
He watched as the General raised the knife above his head, gripping the handle with both hands. His black lips formed a chant in a language that seemed to consist more of grunts and growls than words. The sounds were coarse and guttural and Tigran wanted nothing more than to press his hands over his ears.
Instead, he thought of Zia. Even if the decision he had made was likely to get him killed, at least she wouldn't be harmed. At least he wouldn't have to worry about her safety. That had to count for something.
Pain seared across the palm of his hand. Zia's face splintered into pieces before his eyes to be replaced by his own blood, thick and opaque as tree sap, running over his skin and dripping between his fingers. The General held his wrist tightly, squeezing so the blood splattered the stone at Jadis' feet. He tasted more blood in his mouth and realised he was biting his tongue against a cry. The cut burned as though ice had entered his veins, even though the rest of his hand felt heavy and hot. His head suddenly felt too light, but he managed to remember that Edmund had once been injured by a similar blade to the one now stained with his blood. He felt a vague empathetic connection with the King despite his dislike – brought on by his former betrayal and the way he saw Zia looking at him when she thought no one was watching.
As the pain dulled and his hand began to grow numb, the General spoke again in the same quiet, hypnotic voice.
"Do you swear allegiance to Her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia?"
Tigran closed his eyes as if doing so would make his next words easier to bear. "I do."
"Will you lay down your life to protect her and carry out any instruction she gives without question?"
He was speaking as though the White Witch were still alive or if they had already brought her back from the dead. The fears that Tigran had expressed to Edmund, only to have them brushed aside, reignited like a fire as it is fed more kindling.
"I will," he breathed afraid to raise his voice lest the trembling of his heart become evident. Think of Zia.
"If you break this oath you have sworn, this scar will mark you as an enemy and a traitor. You will be cursed, doomed to suffer until Her Majesty takes pity on your miserable existence. Unless she should decide to let you suffer for eternity."
"I'll bear that in mind."
The General stepped out of the circle of candles, accepting a cloth from Tezrac with which to clean Tigran's blood from his precious knife. The warthog stepped towards Tigran with a bandage and dressed his wound. It still bled and throbbed slightly, but the pain had eased to a dull ache that he could easily ignore.
The General tucked his clean knife back into his belt and turned to face them with a smile that was friendlier than before, but Tigran still didn't trust, especially when he announced: "I think it's time to pay a visit to your little friends."
Tezrac hurried to extinguish the candles, using the last to relight his torch, which he held aloft as he led the way back up the steps. Going up was a lot easier than going down, but their pace meant that Tigran again had to drag his hand along the slimy wall for support. They had good reason to hurry; if the army waiting in the courtyard had any hope of catching up with the Kings before they reached the safety of Cair Paravel they would have to set out within the hour.
When they reached the top of the stairs Tezrac extinguished the torch and quickened his pace, trotting noisily through the corridors with Tigran running to keep up. They didn't stop or slow until they were faced with a set of double doors. Here the General pushed Tigran behind him and signalled to the guards. The doors opened outwards to reveal a huge dining table in the centre of a red room. The light of the setting sun came in through a huge window directly opposite the doors, intensifying the red carpet and walls and making the room appear like the mouth of a hideous beast.
The Boggles leaning against the wall on their right stood to attention when they saw the General. At the same moment the Dryads seated at the table cringed low in their chairs. The room stank of fear and animal dung, but that wasn't what made Tigran catch his breath.
"Gentlemen," the General addressed the Boggles in his gruff voice. "Escort our guests to the dungeon."
Like obedient dogs the Boggles lunged forwards and grabbed one of Tigran's soldiers – his friends – in each meaty fist. They struggled so pitifully that Tigran only just stopped himself from shouting an order at them. You're not their leader any more.
A choked sound, like someone forcing back a cry, came from the head of the table. Zia struggled against the bonds around her wrists and the chair closest to Tigran rocked so much it almost toppled sideways. Her back was to him – she hadn't even realised he was standing just a few paces behind. He started towards her but the General got there first. He grabbed Zia's chin in his thick fingers, a crudely sweet gesture that turned Tigran's stomach.
"You may have got away this time, my pretty, but don't you worry. We've got plans for your royal friend. He'll be on his way as soon as he finds out we have you here and my army will be waiting for him. Then they'll finish off the rest of that troublesome brood one…by…one."
Zia jerked away from his grasp, her eyes narrowed into slits. "Where's Tigran?" she demanded. "If you've hurt him I swear I'll -"
The General laughed harshly. "Oh, he's alive. See for yourself."
As his massive bulk moved aside Tigran at last got a proper look at Zia. He checked her face and arms for injuries and watched her do the same to him. Her eyes went wide when they fell on his hand.
"What have you done?" She glared at the General with a ferocity that would have done the White Witch proud, tugging at her bonds with more force as if she wanted nothing more than for her fists to connect with the General's furry face.
"It's nothing," Tigran said quickly, hoping she would see the warning in his eyes and not ask too many questions.
The two Boggles still stood a few paces away, a Dryad in each paw. They looked from the General to Zia and back again stupidly. They appeared both bewildered and a little afraid of her.
Tigran turned to the General. "You swore she'd go free," he said in a low voice.
The General's face twisted into an ugly smile. "Words can be false and their meaning easily shattered. However you"- he indicated the cloth tied around Tigran's hand –"swore by blood to serve Her Imperial Majesty throughout this life and possibly the next. I swore no such oath."
Zia had been following the exchange with panic and confusion brimming in her eyes. Keep quiet, Tigran silently begged. Just trust me.
Of course, his unspoken words were meaningless.
"Tigran would never do such a thing!" she exclaimed. Her fingers twitched, searching for her bow, but the weapon was out of reach, lying at an unnatural angle in the corner behind Tigran. "His allegiance is with the Kings and Queens!"
"Not any more I'm afraid," replied the General as though speaking to a stubborn child. He put his hand on Tigran's shoulder.
Zia turned her wide eyes on him, pleading him to tell her the Minotaur was lying. She looked so young and frightened that his first instinct was to lie to comfort her. The General's nails dug into his skin like needles. He nodded. Zia turned her head away.
"Let her and the others go," he repeated levelly.
"They're the bait."
"I have a better way to get to them," Tigran argued. He really hoped it wasn't obvious that he was lying through his teeth. "You won't need any bait." He glanced down at Zia. Her face remained hidden behind the red curtain of her hair.
The General scratched his chin. "And what is this idea of yours, pray tell?"
"Just trust me." With some effort he arranged his lips into his most convincing smile. It was the smile that persuaded his warriors to follow through with seemingly the most bizarre orders. The General fell for it with far less resistance than Tigran was used to; the cut on his palm provided enough assurance for the Minotaur that Tigran wouldn't do anything reckless.
"Very well." The General signalled to the Boggles, who reluctantly released their captives. The Minotaur himself untied Zia from the chair and presented her bow with a sweeping bow. She snatched it from his grasp, the relief showing on her face when she discovered it was undamaged. Tigran kept his eyes on her, urging her to face him. When she did, he tried to convey the reassurance he longed to express out loud through his eyes.
Everything's going to be fine, I promise.
He couldn't tell if she understood, but was able to do nothing more as she and the four other Dryads were ushered out of the dining hall by Tezrac and the two Boggles, leaving Tigran alone with the General and no idea what to do next.