It was not just to catch her breath. They had come to a dead end. Her companions stopped with her, breathing heavily.
Behind them they could hear the shouts of their pursuers, echoing across the stone floors. Ahead of them was a cavernous empty room with no exit other than the one they just emerged from. Above them the ceiling was lost in blackness. The room was angular, with many nooks and crannies, except for the center of the room where the floor sloped downward to create a square reminiscent of an arena. The arena was surrounded by large pillars. They were deep underground. No windows lighted the room but glowing orbs were set into sconces randomly throughout the room.
They rested only a few moments. It was all the time they had to spare. Rill took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her heart was pounding. She was afraid. Not for herself but for her companions.
“Spread out and try the sconces first. Maybe there’s a secret passage.” She said. Secret passages were not uncommon in a citadel such as this but Rill didn’t think they would find one here.
They obeyed the order immediately even though she was neither their senior nor even a fellow guild mate to most. They simply saw the wisdom of her order. After a few minutes they gathered together again near a pillar in the back corner of the room. No luck.
“Put out this light,” Rill said, gesturing to the orb on the pillar nearest them. “Maybe we can fool them into thinking we are not in here. Hug the shadows.”
Giles, tallest of them, reached up with his bladestaff and knocked the orb from the sconce. He caught it deftly and smothered its light in his pack. He was a warrior, like Rill, but favored the staff instead of the sword and shield as she did. He was once a close friend and fellow guild mate.
They settled into the shadows and waited for their pursuit to catch up. Rill knelt, sheathing her spatha but keeping her shield out, just in case. The power fueling her enchanted armaments was beginning to run low and she was out of millwax to recharge them. That wasn’t good.
As she rummaged through her pack, thinking just maybe she might have overlooked a millwax tin, Giles slid down the wall and sat next to her. He briefly laid a hand on her shoulder to help himself to the floor, then gingerly checked the bandage over his wounded side. It was soaked through with blood. He grimaced and noticed Rill watching him, her brow furrowed with worry.
“Don’t fret,” Giles murmured, “I’ll be fine. Just need a healing potion. Or a mage.”
They had no life mage with them and they were all out of potions too. Things were looking grim. She did not want to lose Giles. She had lost too many friends over the last few months because of the war. She felt old just thinking about it though she was only twenty two.
Giles had taught her more about the world than any other except her liege, the battle mage, R’za. Between them, R’za and Giles helped her become the warrior she was today. A far cry from the delicate Baron’s daughter she had been. She considered calling out to R’za for help, through the bond they shared, but decided against it. She didn’t want to involve, and therefore implicate, him in this mess. She gently patted Giles’s knee then stood and walked to a pillar where she could keep watch on the tunnel they had just exited while not allowing herself to be immediately seen.
The sounds of pursuit had gone quiet and she allowed herself to hope they had been passed by. Rill strained her eyes, peering across the room and watching. She hoped but she didn’t really believe they were that lucky. Akerun had his prey trapped and he would not stop until his thirst for vengeance was sated.
Rugaba, a young swordsman and guildmate, approached her.
“What happened Rill?” He asked quietly “Why is Akerun hunting us?”
He was so young to be caught up in this; barely fourteen. Only a little older than herself when she first came to Drieebos, she reflected. Rugaba was Bob’s vassal, but under her care during the war.
Bob, she thought, He’s going to kill me for putting his vassal in danger.
She was supposed to be teaching Rugaba techniques with the sword and shield that Bob didn’t specialize in as she did. Magic was so plentiful here and easy to learn if you were willing to put in the time, effort and money. But some chose to focus exclusively on the physical arts. Rill was one of the few purist fighters in the guild and many who aspired to that difficult achievement came to her for training.
“It’s not us. It’s me and Giles.” Rill said. “Look, this… isn’t going to be good. If you have any mana left, I strongly suggest you teleport out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you here. Bob would never let me hear the end of it,” Rugaba said stubbornly.
“And I’ll never hear the end of it if I get his vassal killed,” Rill shot back.
Rugaba paled a little. “So he really intends to kill you?”
Rill rubbed her forehead and sighed, “I don’t know. But he might try. Which is why you need to leave.”
“No,” he said, with just as much conviction as before. Rill admired his resolve though she thought his choice unwise. Akerun was their guild monarch. An accomplished mage, highly skilled, experienced, and very deadly- as many of the enemies of the Knights of Ird had found out.
“This whole thing is ridiculous anyway! Why would he do this now? In the middle of the war?” Rugaba asked.
“Because he saw Giles and I speaking together in the battle’s aftermath and jumped to very wrong conclusions,” she said tightly.
“But I don’t understand why,” he persisted.
Rill turned away from Rugaba, keeping her eyes on the passageway once more. She spoke quietly but loud enough to be heard by all. If they were staying they deserved to know.
“Some of you might recall that not long ago Giles was a member of the Knights of Ird. He was a founder. Before he left an issue over policy came up that led to a heated guild-wide debate.”
She did not look at Giles but she felt his eyes on her back. No one interrupted or asked questions, not even Rugaba now that he had gotten her to share.
“The issue was over whether or not it should become against the rules of the guild to allow the use of Nacomar, the magic of Sui Juris.” Everyone here knew what Nacomar was, a new branch of magic that was the topic of many debates these days. The magic itself was not inherently good or bad, but since it was discovered and mostly used by guilds of questionable reputations, the honor guilds- which included the Knights of Ird- were wary of it.
“Giles believed,” Rill continued but Giles interrupted.
“I still believe.”
She ignored him. “Giles believed that the Knights of Ird should ban its use. Akerun believed we should embrace it. Giles gave Akerun an ultimatum- ban it or he would leave. Akerun did nothing so Giles left and joined the Celestial Dragons. The guild fractured and for a time there was a lot of turmoil, but we recovered. I was promoted from a Junior Captain straight to General as a replacement for Giles.”
Here Rill paused and swallowed. It was one thing to admit her offense to the officers of the guild. They were sworn to secrecy- what happened in officer meetings stayed in those meetings. It was another matter to admit her mistakes to her friends, people she respected and whose opinion mattered a good deal to her. But she pressed on. Best to just get it over with, she thought. It must be said and done.
“I was too young and too inexperienced. Truth be told a lot was expected of me and I wasn’t ready for it. I should not have accepted the position.” She sighed, “But I did. After only a few months I was buckling under the weight of the responsibility that I was not used to. You see, the officers shield the members of the guild from the internal drama and politics that go on. They even shield the younger officers from it. It’s why there is a ranking system in place – to give them a chance to gain experience and gradually prepare them for the harder tasks.”
She looked down at her hands, clenching and unclenching them. “Please do not think I am making excuses for myself. I’m just trying to set the stage so you’ll understand where my head was,” She murmured almost to herself, “Because I sure don’t know where it was at the time.”
“I met up with Giles by accident at a tavern in Faelamont.” A smile tugged at her lips, “He saved me. I was ready to give up and he was a good friend. He advised me back when he was a general and I was a junior captain under his command. I suppose it felt natural for me to share guild business with him.”
She paused again, waiting. Still no one spoke or moved or gasped or did any of the things she would have expected. When she had told the officers they had all erupted into shouting and accusations. Well all except Bob and Eiocynthe. Bob had defended her.
“I confided in Giles and he advised me, like nothing had changed. It helped me immensely.” She felt her shoulders start to hunch against Giles’s eyes at her back but she forced herself to relax. “Then the issue of the Nacomar came up again and this time, I had a vote to cast.”
“I voted in opposition of making a new rule because I believe people have a right to chose for themselves whether to employ this magic. Our current rules of honor and chivalry would suffice to police its use among guild members.”
“When I told Giles, he was furious and vowed never to speak to me again.”
She glanced briefly over her shoulder at Giles. He wasn’t watching her anymore. He was slumped against the wall, head down on his knees, bladestaff clutched tightly in both hands in front of him. She turned away again, swiping a tear from her cheek. That had hurt her but the pain of it was dwarfed by the pain of what happened in the months after.
Giles spoke, his voice muffled, “I believed that you were the same as Akerun. That somehow he had gotten to you, corrupted you. Chained you to his will by use of the Nacomar.”
Rill nodded, “I understand. And I forgive you, you know that.”
“You forgive too easily,” he said, voice still muffled.
Rill shrugged and they lapsed into silence a few moments before she continued.
“Shortly after that, rumors began popping up around town and in the guild. Information was being spread that only the officers should have known about. It didn’t at first occur to me that I might be to blame but it quickly became clear to me that Giles had betrayed my confidence.”
Giles stood abruptly, causing him to wince in pain. He walked a few steps, staying in the darkness but turning away from them. Rill sighed.
“I blamed him for a time but, ultimately, I came to blame myself more. I should not have shared confidential information with anyone outside the officer group regardless of friendship.”
“The damage it did to the guild was brutal and swift. We had only barely recovered from the fracturing that took place when Giles left. Now here was another, more difficult, and widespread problem to deal with. People were outraged, offended, and genuinely hurt. They left in droves. All the officers worked overtime trying to soothe and calm. More people left but eventually everything began to stabilize again.”
“Then Akerun went on a witch hunt. He knew the information was private. He knew one of his officers had betrayed his trust.”
“So imagine my surprise,” A voice boomed from the hallway and Akerun stepped into the room, “To find that it was you, Rill.”
To Be Continued on 9/22/2014
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