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The rocky road to Duren

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"Come on! It's now or never."

"What?"

"It won't be long before he goes after traitors. That's us! We have to flee. Now!"


 

Opeli was never quite sure what happened that afternoon when all the world changed. Who was loyal to King Ezran, and who wasn't. Soren had surprised them. Twice. Once when he appeared in front of them out of nowhere, and then when he declared himself loyal to the real King. Young King Ezran.

Opeli, Corvus, Barius the baker, and the Moon Mage Lujanne watched the magical moon phoenix sail off into the East bearing their true king away to the lands of Xadia.

Soren had returned to the castle, and after some thought, so had Barius. Lady Lujanne had disguised herself as a four-fingered human and declared that Party Time had begun. This left Corvus and Opeli standing alone in the moonlight with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the coins in their pockets, and the things they normally carried with them.

Corvus pointed. "Duren is that way."

"Hm?"

Opeli stood looking back at the castle, her home for all of her life. Apart from a diplomatic visit now and then, she had never been away for more than a few days. Now, she could never return until the rightful King Ezran was on his throne once more.

Corvus' hand was on her shoulder. "Come on, Councillor. We need to get going. they'll be after us before long, and it is a long way to Duren."

Opeli turned to the North. "How long?"

"Seven..." Corvus looked at Opeli. "Maybe fourteen days' march."

"Through the wilderness."

"Better than the roads. They won't find us in the woods."

"I don't know the first thing about bushcraft," said Opeli.

"I do," said Corvus. "And we're in luck. Summer hasn't even started yet. Food grows on trees everywhere."

Opeli rolled her shoulders. "With enough time, everywhere is walking distance."

"That's the spirit! Let's go."

The longest journey starts with the first step. Opeli took a deep breath and took it.


 

Travel fast, go alone. Travel far, go together. A saying as old as the mountains. But what if you want to travel fast and far? Corvus looked over his shoulder at Opeli, who set her teeth and caught up with him.

"Are you okay?"

She nodded, said nothing.

Corvus looked at the sky, guessed that there was maybe three hours before sunrise. If this was just him, he'd press on by night and by day with one-hour stops for food and rest, but a city girl like Opeli would never keep that up. He stopped, waited for her.

"We'll look for a place to make camp. It's safest to travel by night."

"Very well." Opeli gave a small nod. Her face betrayed nothing of how she felt. Which meant there was something to hide.

"Just a little further, and then we can rest, Councillor," he said. "You're doing well."

Opeli sniffed. "For a weak and feeble woman?"

"I didn't say that." Corvus looked round, pointed. "Over there."

"What's over there?" Opeli's voice sounded annoyed.

"Our hiding place for the day. Under that fallen tree, behind the shrubs." Corvus walked over. "Your mansion awaits, Milady."

"I am not a Lady. The correct way to address a cleric of the High Council is 'Your Honour' the first time, and Ma'am afterwards."

"A thousand pardons, Your Honour. What's the correct way to address a specially requested body guard to the King?"

"I can call you anything I want."

They moved under the roots and squatted down, out of sight, out of mind. Corvus pulled out a large knife and chopped off a branch. He sharpened one end into a point and gave it to Opeli.

"Right. What I want you to do is dig two round holes next to each other. One about a foot wide, a foot deep. The second one about a hand's length upwind, a little smaller, and a little deeper."

Opeli frowned. "What for?"

"It's called a Del Bar fire pit. When you have dug the holes, connect them with a tunnel. It works like a chimney. The fire itself is underground so it won't be seen, and it hardly makes any smoke."

Opeli turned her face round. "Which way is upwind?"

"Lick your finger, hold it up. Feel where it goes cold. That's where the wind comes from."

Opeli did, and pointed into the wind.

"Just so. While you dig the fire pit, I'll go find some wood to put in it, and Stars willing, something to cook over it."

Opeli nodded, and dropped to her knees where the fire would be. She winced, and a gasp escaped her lips.

Corvus looked at her. "Something wrong?"

"I'm fine," said Opeli. "Go get the firewood."

"Are you hurt?"

Opeli stumbled to her feet. "I said I'm fine! You are still here."

"Take off your boots."

"What?"

"Come on, Ma'am. Your boots. Take them off."

Opeli scowled, sat down, pulled at her calf-high boots. She couldn't keep her face straight. Corvus kneeled by her feet, took hold of her foot and gently pulled off her boot. His mouth fell open.

"Oh by the Stars!" He looked into Opeli's eyes. "That is heinous! Why didn't you tell me?"

Opeli's jaw set. "Corvus, we are running for our lives! I'm not going to bother you with a few blisters."

"Councillor... Opeli. You have blisters on your blisters. You should have said." He pulled off her other boot as well, carefully removed her socks, poured some water from his bottle over her feet. He looked up at her. "Look. When we're being pursued by soldiers, and we have to run or get cut to pieces, I don't care about sore feet. But we are on a long walk, and if you go on like this, you won't be able to walk at all by next week." He sighed. "I'm an idiot. These boots aren't made for long marches."

Opeli smiled wrily. "They are made for striding regally through the Corridors of Power."

Corvus sucked his teeth. "Right. I'll go and find you some medicinal herbs to put on that. And some firewood. And food."

"I'll start digging," said Opeli.

 

Opeli looked at her handiwork. She had never seen a Del Bar firehole before, but it looked like Corvus had described it. She leaned back on her hands. When she looked round, Corvus was there, his arms full of firewood, his green scarf tied up in a bundle hanging from his belt. He inspected Opeli's work and declared it the best of fire pits. He broke twigs into smaller twigs, pulled out slivers of tree bark, and fashioned it into a kind of bird's nest. He pulled out a flint, struck sparks against his knife, and gently blew the tinder into flame. The fire grew under his hands until it lit up their faces.

"You always feel better with a fire. Now let me take a look at your feet."

Corvus pulled a big handfull of leaves out of his scarf, cut them to pieces, and on a flat stone ground the pieces down into a paste. He smeared a thick layer of green goop onto Opeli's feet. She closed her eyes and sighed.

"What is that stuff?"

"It's called Kingsfoil. Or Athelas as the scholars have it. It's a strong cure against redness of the skin and blisters." Corvus held his hand up to Opeli's face. "And it smells nice too. That's how I found the leaves in the dark."

"Well, it works. Thank you."

"Tomorrow, I'll find some tree bark for shoes. You're not putting those boots back on till we get back to the corridors of power. Are you hungry?"

"You have food as well?"

"Of course." Corvus reached out for his green scarf and untied the knots. "Didn't see anything worth hunting, but I found some wild onions and roots. And some wild apples. They may not be ripe just yet, but we can toast them."

The fire burnt to ashes, and Corvus put in a flat stone to cook on. The meal was surprisingly filling, if a bit bland. They sat underneath the fallen tree's roots and watched the sun come up. Corvus stretched out.

"Try to get some sleep while you can. When we get far enough away from the Katolis authorities, we'll make longer days."

"Um." Opeli shifted uncomfortably. "Does one of us need to keep watch?"

"No use," said Corvus. "Wild animals won't go near the fire. People won't find us here. It's important to rest, Councillor."

Opeli closed her eyes. After a while, she opened them again. There was no way she could sleep. She looked at Corvus, who could probably sleep on command.

"I feel so helpless. I don't like it."

Corvus kept his eyes shut. "Today, you learnt how to build a Del Bar firepit, how to find where the wind comes from, and a recipe for a root vegetable and apple roast. You're not helpless. Far from it."

"At least you didn't try to feed me grubs and worms. Thank you for that."

Corvus grinned. "Well, if I'd only known you like that sort of thing, I could have brought you a feast."

"Where is that moon mage when you need her? Out partying, that's where."


 

Opeli found herself gently shaken by her shoulder. Corvus looked down on her. He had filled in the firepit, packed up all their stuff, and was now holding two pieces of fresh tree bark, more Athelas, and some grass.

"How are your feet?"

Opeli looked at them. They looked like she had been walking over broken glass. Corvus kneeled before Opeli and bound up her feet. The improvised shoes felt strange. Soles of tree bark, filled with grass, wrapped tightly with cord. They did feel nice and soft, though. She stood up, took a few steps. It would have to do.

"How did you know? Natural colours are all the fashion today."

 

They made their way northward in the moonlight, staying away from the King's roads. They met nobody, saw nobody. Corvus took the time to show Opeli all kinds of fruit, edible plants and mushrooms, and poisonous berries to stay away from. Foraging on the go didn't actually slow them down all that much, and it gave Opeli the chance to catch her breath now and then. Privately she thought finding food in the dark was just showing off.

When the sun rose red in the morning, they came to the top of a large hill or small mountain. In the valley below were fields of corn, and pastures with cows peacefully grazing. A farmhouse sat at the edge of a stream, smoke coming out of the chimney. There were stables for the cows, and one of those roofs over a stack of hay-bales that you can raise and lower so cows can eat nice dry hay. Corvus rubbed his stubbles thoughtfully.

"Do you want to knock on their door?" said Opeli.

"I don't know if we can trust them. They may be loyal to Viren."

"News doesn't travel fast in these parts. The morning after King Harrow was assassinated, we sent fast mounted messengers and crows to all the larger towns, and they would spread the message far and wide. We can reach every corner of the Kingdom in two days. That gives anyone five days to get to the Castle should they wish to attend the funeral." An angry edge crept into Opeli's voice. "That is one of the reasons why we wait seven days. It isn't just sentimentality and superstition. Rules exist for a reason. I'll wager that..." She spat out the name. "King Viren has more important things on his mind than ruling the Kingdom. The capital is he important part. Who cares about peasants?"

"King Harrow did. And so did King Ezran. Does."

"Yes, bless them both. Katolis is a mighty country. Viren thinks it's because of its army. We know it's because of people like..." She pointed at the farm. "People like them. They are our might. Let's go and tell them."

 

They carefully made their way down the mountainside and into the valley. They followed the stream till they came to the open gates of the farm. Corvus' head snapped round. He grabbed Opeli's arm and ran to the haystack. He nearly threw Opeli in and jumped in after her.

"Hey! What is that good for?"

"Sh! I hear horses. Soldiers."

Corvus looked out carefully. There were a dozen mounted soldiers wearing Katolis armour. Behind them were a row of men, without armour or uniform, except they all wore a brown and yellow band round their right arms bearing the Katolian emblem of the Twin Towers. They were armed mostly with farming implements. Flails. Blades of scythes tied to sticks. Only one or two swords between the lot of them.

The soldiers rode into the farmyard, and the farmer and his wife came out, followed by their son and a couple of farmhands.

Opeli moved up next to Corvus. Her voice shook with anger. "A press gang. Viren has revived press gangs, curse him to the end of Eternity."

"What, recruiters?"

"No. Recruiters ask. Press gangs tell you to choose between joining or death. This has not happened since Katolis was fifty years old. We could have defended the practice back then. But not now. This goes against all that Katolis stands for."

Corvus smirked. "It's against the law? Oh no!"

Opeli scowled at him. "It's against every law. Katolis is a free country. We are not on a holiday, Corvus. Viren must be stopped or soon, there will be no Kingdom left to save."

They watched helplessly as the son and two of the farmhands were pulled out, sworn in, and marched out of the gates to an unknown fate, leaving the farmer and his wife staring after them, holding on to each other. Opeli made a gruff noise, and before Corvus could stop her, she crawled out of the haystack and walked to the pair. They stared at her as if she were a ghost.

"Milady! Where did you come from?"

Opeli gave them a gentle smile. "I have travelled far, all the way from Durem. My name is Opeli, and I am on my way to the Standing Batallion at the Breach."

Corvus came up, and the farmer gently pushed his wife behind him. "My name is Bram, Milady. This is Lilah. They took Samuel, our son, and Ellert, and Pyr."

"Bram, Lilah, I am so very sorry." Opeli bowed her head. "There was nothing we could do."

"I tried to tell them Milady, they aren't made for fighting. Never raised a hand against anyone, but they wouldn't listen."

"What will happen to them, Milady?" Lilah tried to hold back her tears. "Will they have to go into heathen lands, and fight those blood-thirsty savages?"

Opeli reached out and took Lilah's hand between her own. "There is still hope that there will be no fighting at all. But we must reach the Standing Batallion before they do."

"Milady," said Bram. "If you don't mind me saying, you look like you haven't had a proper meal in a long time. I'll have our Amira cook you up a breakfast."

Opeli's stomach growled. "T-that would be most welcome."

They walked inside. Corvus whispered in Opeli's ear.

"Wouldn't you prefer some nice grubs and worms? Milady?"

"Shut up, Corvus."

They sat down at the table, were given large mugs of tea.

Bram called out. "Amira! You can come out now, we have guests."

A door opened, and a young woman came out. She looked round the room, almost ignoring Corvus and Opeli. "Where's Samuel?"

Bram held her shoulders. "He has joined the Katolis Army. To help defend our borders from the Xadians."

Amira's eyes burnt. "No he hasn't. He's been taken! We must get him back, they can't do this!"

"You're right." Opeli stood up. "Once King Ezran once more sits on the Throne, all will be put right. Samuel, Ellert, and Pyr will return."

"They said King Ezran has abdicated. They said he betrayed Katolis and is a prisoner in the dungeons of Katolis Castle, and that Viren is now our King."

"Those are lies from the false king Viren," Opeli said. "I cannot say much, but rest assured. King Ezran is alive and free, and is working to find a way to have peace with Xadia."

"What, with those murdering elves?" Lilah said. "If he does that, he'll be a true miracle worker."

"Maybe he can cure my baldness," said Bram. "Amira? Get the frying pan out, we have hungry people here. I'll go look after the beasts. With the lads gone, someone has to."

 

Amira and Lilah started breakfast and a magical smell drifted across the room. Corvus leaned over to Opeli.

"We need to get you out of these clothes."

Opeli raised a blonde eyebrow and said nothing very loudly.

"And into something less eye catching." Corvus looked up at the Sky. "Honestly. I'll even turn my back. We can't have everybody between here and, um, the Breach recognise you as the True King's Councillor Opeli. Peli the Peasant Girl can go where you can't. And I noticed that you and Amira are about the same size."

"O you did, did you?"

"Oh by the... I'm a tracker. I notice things. It's what I do."

"I suppose you are right." Opeli sighed. "I am a bit conspicuous in my courtly attire. I'll ask her if I can borrow, no buy one of her dresses." She looked at the women by the stove. "For a good price. They're going to need money."

"And a pair of walking boots."

"Yes."

They sat looking at the breakfast preparations for a few moments. Corvus grinned to himself.

"Might be a little tight round the chest, though."

Opeli stared daggers at him. "Shut up, Corvus."


 

They said goodbye to Bram, Lilah, and Amira and set off in the direction of the Breach. Once they were out of sight, they turned north again. Opeli now looked like any peasant girl, except that nothing would ever change the expression of high-born radiance on her face. She was wearing thick socks inside proper work boots that had belonged to Samuel, Bram's son. Her own clothes, including even the boots, were in a duffel bag on her back. Corvus had picked up a few useful items for camping, and they marched on without talking much, making good time.

"I hope they'll be allright," said Corvus.

"If they are replacing the soldiers marching for Xadia, they'll be fine keeping people from stealing the castle doors. If they go to Xadia, Viren will use them as a distraction for the elf armies. The trained soldiers have better things to do." She closed her eyes for a few moments. "Was I right to allow Ezran to abdicate? I could have persuaded him not to."

"Us against the combined armies of Del Bar, Neolandia, and Evenere? We would have won, but it would have been a massacre. Whole armies wiped out."

"It may still be a massacre. The Xadians are formidable. If I had persuaded Ezran to stay, they would have died with their feet on their own soil. There is no sense, no honour in this war, Corvus."

"Viren has no honour. He only cares about power. And that cursed Dark Magic of his."

Opeli looked over her shoulder, in the direction of the Castle. "He saved all of the Human Kingdoms with his Titan's Heart Cornucopia Spell. Turned barren wastelands into places where food grows everywhere. He has done great works for Katolis, at great cost to himself. But now, he is lost. I wonder what made him lose his way."

A dark cloud passed over Corvus' face. "I don't care. All I want is to stop him. If we have to bury him the same day, then so be it."

Opeli wagged her finger. "Regicide is against the law."

"Stuff the Law. When I see him, he's dead."

 

They walked on through the day, until they found a good camping spot, hidden behind some bushes, with a small cliff edge in their backs. Corvus pulled a small shovel out of his pack and held it up to Opeli.

"Want to prove that your first Del Bar fire pit wasn't beginners luck?"

"The Del Bar fire pit I cannot dig..." Opeli licked her finger and pointed into the wind. "Still has to be dug."

"And this time, we actually have a cook pot. You'll never want to live in a castle again!"

"A roof over your head, safety, a steady supply of food, a library, working sanitation, and a warm bed are hugely overrated."

"I'll be back with food and firewood."

Corvus disappeared into the gloom, and Opeli set to digging. She managed not to make the tunnel collapse. Two holes in the ground. Less advanced technology than the shovel she'd dug it with, and still the difference between life and death. She didn't have to wait long till Corvus came back with a bundle of sticks and something four-legged, furry, and dead.

"Got lucky," he said. "It jumped up just ahead of me, and I got it with my blade. Tonight, we dine on smeerp! Want me to show you how to butcher it?"

"Um," said Opeli.

She was well aware that meat had once been a living thing, on a theoretical level, but actually getting the creature's blood on her hands, taking the insides out, and cutting up the pieces, was something she had left to professionals up to now.

"Townies." Corvus grinned. "Don't even know where their peppered smeerp comes from."

"What's a smeerp anyway?" said Opeli.

"It's a bit like a jackalope, but it doesn't have antlers."

"Hm. I don't remember having anything like that. What's it taste like?"

"Umm..." Corvus pulled out his knife. "Tastes a bit like shadowfang."

Opeli hung her head. "I suppose I'll find out soon enough."

 

Roast leg of smeerp, as it turned out, was delicious. Opeli leaned back against the wall, dropped the bone in the fire, and gratefully accepted another bit of hot meat.

"Are you sure we're not breaking some law against poaching?" said Corvus. "Are we stealing this from King Ezran?"

"We're stealing this from King Viren. It's practically a moral obligation to break his laws."

Corvus sat down next to Opeli, feet to the fire. "Who needs laws anyway? The only thing they do is take away your freedom."

"Not so." Opeli couldn't let that slide. "You need laws to be free."

"How's that?"

Opeli reached into her pouch and pulled out a silver coin. "This will buy you a meal like this in a tavern. They will even cook it for you. Out here, where there are no laws, if I gave this to you, you'd be mad to give me even a little piece of smeerp for this. You can't eat a coin. Only when there is a law that says so does this..." she flipped the coin into the air and caught it. "Equal to this." She took a bite, and continued talking with her mouth full like a savage. She held the coin up to Corvus. "Guess. If you melt this down, how much silver do you think you'd get?"

"Um... one silver piece's worth?"

Opeli shook her head. "This isn't pure silver. It's an alloy of a little silver with nickel. Makes it stronger. Makes it last longer being passed from one person to the next. Pure silver and pure gold are too soft to take that kind of beating."

"So we're being cheated?"

"No. This coin represents one grain of the silver that's in the Royal Bank's vaults. You could walk to the bank, give them this coin, and walk away with a small lump of silver." Opeli chuckled. "Well, in theory. In practice they would think you're mad and tell you to go away. But if you go to a tavern, they have to give you one silver's worth of food for one silver. It's the law."

"I share this food with you because you are my travelling companion. I don't need a law to tell me that." He grinned. "And because it's great to watch a high ranking official with grease dripping down her chin."

Opeli wiped her mouth. "Are you travelling companions with everyone who has something you want to buy? Clothes? Weapons? A house? Small groups of people are easy. But Katolis has thousands upon thousands of people. You need laws to build a kingdom."

Corvus shrugged. "Say what you'll do, do what you say. That's all the laws you need. If I say I'll build you a house, I'll build you a house."

"Yes, but you need to use good quality timber and bricks. You need people who know how to build houses so it doesn't fall down on your head if you slam a door. You need to finish the job before your buyer grows old and dies. You need to have permission from King Ezran to build in the place where you want to. All of that is governed by law. Laws are as much part of a house as the bricks and mortar."

"Do this, don't do that. Lots of people telling you what you can and can't do. Just for being allowed to walk down the streets."

"Laws are not set in stone. They are alive. If you can convince the King and his councillors that some law is unjust, then we can change it to make it more fair. It happens all the time."

"Not for the likes of me, it doesn't." Corvus took a deep breath. "That's why I like being out here. I can do what I want. Cities are nice places to visit, I'll grant you, but they are made of dead stone. Here, I'm free."

Opeli looked into his eyes. "You are free. You are a good man. You are not a thief. You are not a murderer. Murderers and thieves are not free. They may not steal or kill. If someone steals from you, the whole might of Katolis is behind you. Laws aren't an obstacle to freedom, they are the building blocks of freedom."

"I believe you. Still, here we are. Hiding from the authorities."

Opeli looked into the firepit with its glowing embers. "It's not perfect. I know it is not. But it is better than nothing. As long as good people are at the helm, it works."


 

Two days later, they crossed the border into Duren. They kept to the roads, such as they were. Mostly stamped-down earth with markers every mile. Duren was easily the most fertile of all the human kingdoms. Even Opeli, townie through and through, could find enough to fill her stomach here. All she had to do was reach out and pick apples, bend down to pick up wild strawberries, stonefruit, milkfruit.

Corvus put his hand on Opeli's shoulder, turned her round, dropped to his knee, and she did the same. Out by a milkweed bush, two small deer came out, pulling at the juicy fruits. Opeli held her breath.

"Hungry?" There was a gleam in Corvus' eye.

Opeli smiled back. "No."

The deer looked round, saw them, twitched their noses and wandered off. These were rubbish milkfruit anyway. They knew much better fruit where these humans would never find them. They got to their feet and walked on. Sunlight filtered through the thick canopy of leaves above them.

"To think that all this... was all done by Viren."

"Not just by him. King Harrow. Queen Sarai. Queen Annika. Queen Neha. General Amaya. All the Katolis soldiers."

Opeli's face hardened. "We trespassed on Xadia's soil, armed and ready for violence. We killed one of its sentient creatures. Ripped out its heart for, for... fertiliser. I can name you at least a dozen laws and rules we broke out of my head. The Xadians have a legitimate complaint against us." She looked at the forest round her. "And still. This place is beautiful. The children of those we saved are now old enough to till the land. We can't go back to the way it was. There is no way to settle this. We can only hope the Xadians are willing to forgive and forget, and we have no right to demand it of them."

Corvus said nothing and walked on. When all this happened, he was being fed porridge with a spoon. All before his time. He looked at Opeli. She had thrown her hood back, and her long blonde hair blew in the wind. Her face was still, pensive. How could such a place of beauty come from an act of evil? There was an air of purity about her, but purity was a luxury. Now and then, you needed to get your hands dirty, simply to survive. Viren knew that when he drew his plan to steal the heart of a magma titan. So did King Harrow. One act of evil to save the lives of many. A dark stain on your conscience, balanced by the fact that a hundred thousand doomed people now drew breath.

Where was that balance now?

A hundred thousand humans and elves were about to die.

What good would come of that?

Who would benefit, and how?

"What?" Opeli looked at him. Corvus had been staring at her.

"Nothing," he said. "Just thinking."

 

"Halt!"

A burly man stood in the middle of the road with at least a dozen others, all armed. Knives. Clubs. Spears. They wore no uniforms. They had that predatory look in their eyes that meant they had all the good cards in hand, and someone was about to be eaten alive.

Bandits.

Thieves.

Robbers.

Crap.

Corvus' hand slowly moved to his chain-blades. He didn't take his eyes off the men.

"Councillor? I'm going to kill the leader, then run off and draw as many of them away as I can. You run as fast as you can the other way."

"No."

"What?"

"Don't kill the leader. Do you see the one with the blue coat? He's the lieutenant. Kill him instead. I can deal with the leader."

"What?!"

"Do it."

Corvus never missed. He swung the chain round once, launched it at the lieutenant. The blades could sever tree-limbs. They made a frightening wound going in, and a worse one when he yanked them out. The lieutenant was dead before his body hit the ground. Corvus sprinted away into the trees. He looked over his shoulder once. His eyes grew wide.

Opeli wasn't running!

"After him!"

There was no time. Corvus ducked down and disappeared between the trees.


 

"Well well. What have we here?"

"What does it look like we have here?" Opeli said.

The leader gave her a long look. "There's more to you than meets the eye. Take her to camp."

One of the men stepped up and grabbed her arm, which as anyone knows renders women completely helpless and unable to resist. They marched her off. After only a few minutes' walk, they arrived at a circle of tents, pitched round a campfire. The leader stepped up close to her.

"Who are you?"

"Me? I'm nobody."

"Oh please, spare me the heroism. You know perfectly well that we can wring everything out of you in time. Give me an answer."

"You ask the wrong question. Who I am is not important. Who I was is. I was King Harrow's companion, up till a half year ago. I served him when the Queen would not, or could not."

"What happened half a year ago?"

Opeli shrugged. "Time. Spring turned into summer. Summer turned into autumn. The King grew tired of me. I no longer excited him as once I did. He did allow me to continue living in the castle, which was nice of him. And then he died, and those who were left weren't as nice."

"You mean the Boy King?"

Opeli laughed. "King Ezran likes them a bit younger than me. And he would play hide-and-seek rather than hide-the-sausage. And then Viren came to power. Frankly, I'd rather consort with a pig than with him. So I was sent home, after ten years of faithful service." She scowled. "With only one coward for a guard. It's insulting."

"You are one of the King's whores?"

"I would prefer not to be called that, but I cannot argue. It's who I was. Now, I am... an embarrassment. Nobody will pay for my safe return. If you ask, they'll say you can keep me, and good riddance."

The leader looked Opeli up and down, his gaze lingering in places. "So what can we do with you?"

Opeli bent closer and whispered. "If you keep me to yourself alone, I'll make it worth your while."

"What's to keep me from just taking from you what I want?"

Opeli's lips curled into a little smirk. "If you just strap me over a barrel and have your way with me, I won't do for you what I used to do for the King. I was good at my job. I can keep you warm and happy for a month without doing the same thing twice. Surely, being the leader of such a fine gathering as this has its perks? Don't you deserve something nice for yourself alone?"

"Heh. So what are these favours?"

"What would you like me to do? Talk about them, or..." Opeli licked her lips with the tip of her tongue. "Show you?"

The leader jerked his head at one of the tents. "Get in."

"Don't you want to search me for weapons first?"

"You can search me for weapons."


 

These bandits were fools. They came after him as if he was a pheasant, beating their weapons against the trees, making enough noise to deafen even themselves. Corvus never suffered fools gladly, and thinking of what Opeli might be going through took away every scrap of his patience and compassion. He cut them down one by one, striking from the shadows, from the trees, from behind a bush, as fast as he could, without mercy. Every second spent here was one second of suffering for Opeli. There was just one left. Corvus sprang on him from behind, twisted the chain around his neck, crushed his throat. Even before the noise stopped, he was on the move, first back to the place where they had met the bandits, then following the tracks like a hound on a clear trail. He saw the campsite, drew near. With dark eyes, he looked round, people were milling about, sitting round the campfire. Corvus listened, and his heart grew cold. From inside one of the tents came... noises. Voices. One voice. Cries. Moans. The slap of flesh against flesh. Corvus drew his knife, leapt up into the trees, swung over to the tent. Without a noise, he dropped down. He cut a slit in the tent, pulled it open.

His jaw dropped.

Inside was Opeli, fully clothed, a long thin blade in her hand. Next to her on the ground was the bandit leader. For a long, long moment, Corvus couldn't pull his eyes away from the small trickle of blood that ran from one of his ears.

Opeli waved at him, gave one more loud cry, a final few gasps, then... silence. Corvus beckoned her over and together, they slunk away into the night. Once they were a good way away, Corvus turned to Opeli.

"Are you okay?"

Opeli threw her head back and laughed. She sheathed her blade, pulled her sleeve over it.

"I understand you."

"What?" Corvus looked Opeli over for signs of being hit in the head, but except for a few gallons of adrenalin sloshing around in her slender body, he couldn't find any.

"I understand what you mean by free." Opeli grabbed Corvus' shoulders. "I was in danger of my life. They had me. Goodness only knows what they would have done to me. There is no law here to protect me." Her eyes shone at Corvus. "There is no law here for me to keep. I am free! I can do anything!"

Corvus brushed an imaginary speck of dust off her shoulder. "Well, as long as you do it quietly. We're not away yet."

They moved quietly into the shadows. Opeli bumped Corvus' leg with her hand and he looked round.

"Some things just aren't as much fun if you do them quietly."


 

"You told him that you...? And King Harrow?"

"Yes."

"By the Moon and Stars! Queen Sarai would have skewered you both to the bed if she'd found you there."

"Most likely, yes. Wise Councillors do not cross Queen Sarai."

"So why did you want me to kill the lieutenant and not the leader?"

Opeli took one more bite of her apple, tossed the core to the side of the road. "There was a power struggle among the bandits. The leader was on his way out. He was getting old. Not as big and strong as he once was. Some of his friends still supported him, but not everyone. And the lieutenant knew it, and was ready to overthrow the leader at the first opportunity. You did the leader a favour killing him."

"Well, I'm not happy till he's not happy."

"With the threat gone, the leader had to re-establish his position, and what better way to show them than to keep the attractive blonde all to yourself?" Opeli sneered. "If you'd have killed the leader, the lieutenant would have got a promotion, and he would have needed to make his new minions happy. He would have passed me round as a reward for their loyalty."

Corvus stared. "How do you know that?"

"I know power games when I see them, and I am better at them than some illiterate lout." There was a frightening look in her eyes. "He really should have searched me for weapons."

 

"How much further to Duren Castle?"

"If we press on a bit, we can get there by tomorrow morning."

"That won't do."

"What do you mean? You don't want to run there, do you?"

"No. I don't want to force ourselves. We need to stop for a while and prepare."

"Prepare? How?"

"If we arrive at the castle looking like beggars, we will be treated like beggars." Opeli raised her hand. "That we are in fact begging for help is bad enough. I want to make it look like we have something to offer. We need to rest. Clean up. Collect ourselves." She tilted her head. "Do I hear water?"

"Waterfall about two hundred yards to our left. Why?"

"Perfect!"

Opeli trotted off to the side and all Corvus could do was follow her. They came to the edge of a pond with a waterfall clattering down.

Opeli turned to Corvus. "If we camp here, and stay the night, we'll arrive at Duren Castle by tomorrow afternoon, correct?"

"I think so."

"Good." Opeli looked at the pond. "This place is lovely. I will have a bath and wash my clothes. Unless you want me to dig a fire pit?"

"There's more fires than fire pits. I'll make the fire."

 

Corvus gathered up firewood, made a circle of stones, and lit up without looking at Opeli more than absolutely necessary to see that she was still there in the water and hadn't been swallowed by a lake monster.

"Hey!"

Corvus coughed. "Councillor?"

"Give me your clothes."

"Uh what?"

"Your clothes. Give them to me so I can wash them. When we arrive and the crowd draws back, I want it to be because of my aura of authority and not because of the smell of my designated security detail."

"That's okay, I'm fine."

"You certainly are. Now give me your clothes."

Did she just say that?! There was no escaping it. He had to look at her. To his relief, and only slight disappointment, her long hair was discreetly draped forward over her shoulders. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. He stripped down to his underpants, decided to keep those on, and firmly looking into Opeli's eyes, handed his clothes to her. She looked like she was enjoying this damn her!

"Thank you," she said, precisely as if washing nearly naked men's clothes while wearing not a single thread herself was all in a day's work for a High Council cleric.

"I'll, um, keep watch."

"You do that."

Opeli soaped up all their clothes, rubbed them against a stone, rinsed them out, spread them out on the grass to dry in the sun. She hummed a little tune while she worked, without a care in the world.

"Right." Her voice was bright and cheerful. "That'll do. I think I'll try that waterfall now." She turned round and walked into the water.

"Uh huh." said Corvus.

The fire needed more wood and he turned away from... There were splashing noises from the pond.

"Hey! Aren't you going to get in? The water is lovely and cool once you get used to it."

Corvus stared at the sticks in his hand. He had been trying with all his might not to look at Councillor Opeli. She, let's be fair, had been trying to draw his attention from the moment she had dropped her clothes.

She did have another set of clothes. Very nice ones, actually.

She could have put on her robes.

She hadn't.

She was definitely, definitely doing this on purpose.

And if that was the case, Corvus decided, if she chose to show it, he could look at it.

He sat down on the grass. She slowly walked out, back straight as a ruler. Her bottom went below the surface, which was a shame.

"Be careful, Councillor. It looks like it gets deep suddenly."

"Corvus. I can swim. I was on the school swim team. I was the first runner-up in the competition."

"Well done," he said.

"Actually, it stung a bit. The girl who won was a nasty little piece of work." She looked at him over her shoulder. "Then again, so was I. While she was celebrating with her little clique what a loser I was, I was in the rose garden on her boyfriend's lap and his hand under my waa!" Opeli dropped down and disappeared under water.

"Told you. But would you listen?"

Corvus took a run-up and dived into the water. He grabbed Opeli under her arms and pulled her to the surface. She turned round, wrapped her arms round his neck, and then her face was suddenly very close to his. Her skin felt cool against him. He found his hands had moved to the small of her back without him putting them there. He tore his mind away from how well she fit in his arms.

"Um. Councillor?"

"Corvus. We are in each other's arms. I am naked. You are almost naked." She pushed a wet strand of hair out of her face. "I think we may dispense with the formalities now. Call me Opeli."

"Opeli?"

"Yes?" She played with his many dark plaits.

"When you said I was almost naked, did you mean I was wearing almost no clothes, or that I would be totally naked soon?"

Opeli closed her eyes and kissed him.

"Yes," she said.


 

"Do you think our clothes are dry yet?"

"Maybe."

"Would you like me to find out?"

"No."

"Sun's going down soon."

Opeli rubbed her cheek on Corvus' shoulder. "We can make fire. I know all about making fire."

Corvus put a finger under her chin, tilted her face up, kissed her. "There is a filthy pun in there somewhere."

"There are better things to do with your lips."

"Dinner, for one. Are you hungry?"

"Hmm." Opeli closed her eyes. "Seduce me."

"I'm thinking bacon. Boar meat, wrapped in bacon, stewed with root vegetables and mashed apples, with more bacon. Boar stew, Corvus style."

"You've actually got my mouth watering." She moved on top of him. "Well done."

They got up, found their clothes, had dinner. Because getting a good night's rest was important, Corvus gathered two big stacks of soft leaves for them to sleep on. Opeli pushed Corvus away and moved the two stacks together. Opeli fell asleep looking at the soft glow of the dying fire, Corvus' arms gently round her.

 

Early the next morning Corvus woke to find Opeli up already. She was sitting at the waterside combing her hair. As he watched, she stepped out of her farmer's daughter disguise and dressed herself in her courtly dress and robes. She carefully placed the diadem of her office on her head, straightened it. She turned to face Corvus, who stood up and walked towards her.

"Well?"

"Magical," Corvus said. "Can I still kiss you?"

Opeli slightly inclined her head. "You may."

They kissed. Opeli's grey eyes gleamed.

"Only not in the middle of our negotiations with Her Majesty Queen Aanya of Duren please. It would detract from the solemnity of the event."

"Not in front of the children. Got you."

Opeli's eyes turned up to the Sky. "And may I request that I do the talking? Just until you know not to refer to heads of state as children?"

"Sure thing." said Corvus. "I'll just loom in the background."

"Being tall, dark, and handsome. Perfect."


 

They broke camp, packed away their things, and set off on the final lap towards the Castle. The dirt roads gave way to paved streets, the forests to farmlands, until they reached the open gates of Duren's capital. Opeli looked left and right once to get her bearings, licked her finger and pointed.

"That way." She grinned at Corvus. "Where your finger goes cold, that's where power comes from."

Opeli led them surely and swiftly along the streets to the palace where the young Queen Aanya sat on the throne of Duren. Queen Aanya had been in Katolis once, when Viren had called a meeting of all the rulers of the Pentarchy. Viren had severely overstepped his authority doing that, but since he was now the de facto ruler of Katolis, arguing the point was useless.

She had only seen Queen Aanya briefly, but the word was that she had stood up to Viren and the three other monarchs. As far as Opeli was concerned, anyone who stood up against Viren was Good People. The Queen had flat out refused to go to war against Xadia, and her army of mostly archers had stayed inside the Duren borders.

And now, all Opeli had to do was convince her that taking the greater part of her army into Xadia, there to join up with her mortal enemies, and keep the combined forces of Katolis, Neolandia, and Evenere away from the Storm Spire.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Corvus didn't like big cities. Walk in, sell what you have, buy what you need, get out to where you can breathe. He didn't even have a designated bunk in the Katolis barracks. If General Amaya needed him for something, she knew where to find him. He followed Opeli through the streets, watching every door and every window. Out in the wild, tree branches moved, leaves rustled, people left tracks on the ground he could read. Here, there were too many people, most of them having nothing to do with him. The ones that did would be the ones looking at Councillor Opeli. He followed her up to the castle, over the bridge, to where they were stopped by the guards.

"Halt. State your name and business."

Opeli raised herself to her full height. "I am Opeli of the Katolis High Council. I seek an audience with Her Majesty Queen Aanya. I bring news of great importance."

"Another one." The guard looked at his companion. "Are all the Katolians going to move here?"

"I don't blame them for trying. Katolis is turning into a bit of a dump."

"Councillor Opeli?"

Corvus turned round to see a Katolis soldier walk up to them. He searched his memory. Ah. One of the Crown Guards. The one who had raised the alarm on the Moonshadow assassins. Good lad.

"Private Marcos, greetings." Opeli said. Of course. She would know him. Opeli knew everybody. "What are you doing here?"

"Offering our help, Ma'am. Shit's about to happen pardon my Neolandian."

"It is wonderful to see you alive and well, Private."

"Broken Link at your service, Ma'am. Will you be joining us?"

"After I speak with Queen Aanya, certainly."

"Oh, we have a war council in three hours. I'm sure you will be welcome to join." Marcos scratched his head. "It'll be good to have someone who knows the way of the Courtly Arts. Us, if someone don't agree with us, we just stab them, which is no way of making friends."

"Don't sell yourself short, Private," Opeli said. "Not stabbing people is a good start. You'll be a diplomat yet."

"Ahem." The guard clearly felt the need to join in on all this talk about stabbing people. "Do you still want an audience with Queen Aanya? In that case..." He gave Corvus a look. "Please hand in your weapons. You'll get them back when you leave."

Opeli gave the guard a brilliant smile. "I think we are already invited elsewhere, Corporal. We won't need to trouble you or Her Majesty at this time. Thank you so much for your help."

The guard touched his helm. "You're welcome, Lady. Welcome to Duren."

They walked off together with Marcos.

Corvus whispered in Opeli's ear. "What help?"

"He didn't stab us. That's helpful, isn't it?"

"I suppose." Corvus turned to Marcos. "What are you doing here? I thought you didn't want to fight anymore."

"Hah. You're making the same mistake Viren did."

"Oh? What's that?"

"You are confusing 'We don't want to fight...'" they rounded a corner onto a large grassy field. On it were rows upon rows of Katolian tents, all bearing the banner of the Broken Link. "With 'We don't want to fight for you.'"


 

"Councillor Opeli, Commander Gren, Soldiers of Katolis. Welcome to Duren, and thank you for your offer of help. These are dangerous and trying times, and we know that it was no small achievement to come to this place. We declare this war council open, and may wisdom and strength attend us all."

Opeli bowed her head. "Thank you for your kind words, Your Majesty. We have come far, but we have farther still to go, and hard work to do before we rest. Dangerous these times may be, but there is also hope. Allegiances have shifted. Those who we once thought were our friends and allies are now our enemies, and our enemies of old may now well stand beside us as our allies, even if not as our friends."

"We have heard of the treasonous deeds of King Viren, loth as I am to name him that. He has gathered the armies of three nations of the Pentarchy for no other reason than to seize the Dragon Azymondias, Prince of the Dragons, son of Queen Zubeia. Should he succeed, and drain the Dragon Prince of his magical essences, he will become powerful beyond any hope of resistance, and neither the Pentarchy nor Xadia will survive." Queen Aanya's face turned dark. "And if that were not enough, he has also commanded an attempt on my own life."

Opeli blinked. "I did not know that, Ma'am. I am grateful that this attempt was thwarted. But how do you know that this was Viren's doing?"

Queen Aanya shivered. "One evening, I had just gone to bed, when there was a great commotion outside. As I watched, a red shining figure, elf-like in its appearance, laid low three of my most trusted guards, before she was killed by the effort of all the rest of the palace guards together. She vanished into thin air, leaving only her weapons. Two curved blades after the Moonshadow design."

"But..." Commander Gren started to sign as he spoke, before realising that General Amaya was not there. "But wouldn't that show that the Moonshadow elves were behind this?"

"It would. We captured a Sunfire elf and from him learnt that no elf could do such a thing. Not Moonshadow, not Sunfire, not Skywing, not Earthblood, not Tidebound, nor even Startouch elves could have done such a thing. This left only one source." Queen Aanya looked round the table. "Dark Magic. And that meant only one man could have done this. High Mage Viren. Upon learning this, we released the Sunfire elf with a message to Lux Aurea. They know we are coming and will guide us to Storm Spike. Commander Gren has agreed to lead the forces of Katolis, and they will march with us."

Queen Aanya stood up from her chair. "We name King Viren our enemy. We will not rest until he, and all of his works, are destroyed. Be it known that we do not aim our vengeance at the kingdom of Katolis, nor at the kingdoms of Neolandia, Del Bar, and Evenere. Only Viren, and those in league with him, will feel the weight of our hand upon them. I have given the orders. We leave tomorrow at dawn, and may good fortune be with us all."


 

Opeli sat on a bench on the castle wall and watched the sun set. She looked up at a noise to see Corvus standing next to her. She moved over and he sat down. She put her head on his shoulder and he put his arm round her.

"You've done it," he said.

"In the end I did not do much. Viren, of all people, did most of the work. We are going to Xadia."

Corvus pulled Opeli a little closer. "There's going to be fighting. Are you sure you need to be there? It's safer here. I don't want you to be hurt."

"I am coming. There's going to be a lot of talk with elements of the Five Kingdoms, Lux Aurea, all the other elves, even the Dragons themselves." She smiled up at Corvus. "I have to teach you all not to stab each other at the first sign of disagreement."

"Hey! Look around you. There's thousands of people here I haven't stabbed."

"You are a quick learner. I am proud of you."

They sat quietly for a few moments.

"Opeli?"

"Yes?"

"Where are we?"

She pressed her cheek to his shoulder, closed her eyes.

"We cannot marry. We cannot have children. The rules of the Clergy do not allow it."

Corvus looked at her face, quiet, peaceful. "I'm sure there's lots of other things we did that you're not allowed to do either."

Opeli pulled Corvus' shirt out of his trousers, slipped her hand underneath, ran her fingers over his stomach. "I am sure I haven't a notion what you are talking about." She thought a moment. "There are parts of my vocation that take up the same space in my life that a marriage would. I would have to give up my... no. What I am."

"You are married to your job," Corvus said.

"Well, technically..." She stopped herself. "Yes. You can say that. Corvus, the things we did together. The painful parts. The frightening parts." She sat up, ran her fingers over his stubbles. "You carrying me out of the water. Feeling your arms round me with the water just touching my feet. All the things we did these last few weeks. I've never been happier. And I would love nothing more than to explore further."

"But," said Corvus.

"But nothing." She climbed onto his lap, softly kissed him. "I have told you what I cannot do. Will not do. Everything else is... open for negotiation."

"I have to negotiate? With you? Oh crap."

Opeli laughed, without holding back, without anything but joy. "The most important thing about negotiation is to find where your own desires match up with the other's. And work from there."

"Uh?"

"For instance. Her Majesty Queen Aanya offered me a soft warm bed for the night. I persuaded the Quartermaster to assign me a place somewhere out of the way. So that there would be no noise complaints."

"Because you are a light sleeper."

"Because some things just aren't as much fun if you do them quietly." She wrapped her arms tighter round him, pressed her body against his. "Now. Would you like a warm bed for the night?"

"Your honour?" Corvus let Opeli's long blonde hair slip through his fingers. "I would love a warm bed for the night."

"Well then. Maybe I can help you." She raised a finger. "But only if you do that thing for me that you did back at the pond."

"Done."