Valdemar 05 - [Vows & Honor 02] - Oathbreakers (8 page)

BOOK: Valdemar 05 - [Vows & Honor 02] - Oathbreakers
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Kethry chuckled, but it was with a hint of sadness. It had been very hard to convince the hedge-wizards that their abilities did not match their dreams. “You want the truth? Their talents are all in line with Low Magick; earth-witchery, that sort of thing. I convinced them that there's
wrong with that, asked them which they'd rather ride, a good, steady trail-horse or
fire-eater. They aren't stupid; they saw right away what I was getting at.” She set Hellsbane at the next slope, her hooves dislodging bits of shale and sending them clattering down behind them. “So now that they aren't trying. to master spells they haven't the Talent to use properly, they're doing fine. Frankly, I would rather have them with us than two of those courtly mages. Water-finding is a lot more use than calling lightning, and the fire-making spell does us more good than the ability to light up a ballroom.”
“You won't catch me arguing. So what's this magic of yours going to do?”
“Show me the weak spots in the trail. If there's something ready to give, I'll know about it before it goes.”
“I should be able to invoke a greater magic at that point, and hold the pieces together long enough for us to get across.”
draw attention?”
“It would,” Kethry replied slowly, “if I did what a court mage would do, and draw on powers outside myself—which causes ripples; no, I have just enough power of my own, and that's what I'll use. There won't be any stir on the other planes....”
But it's going to cost me if I do things that way. Maybe high. Well, I'll handle that when the time comes.
“You said one reason we're riding tailmost—that implies there's more reasons.”
“Two—we're tailguards in truth. We could find ourselves fighting hand to hand with Kelcrag's scouts or his mages. They haven't detected us that we know of, but there's no sense in assuming less than the worst.”
“So long as they don't outnumber us—I'm not exactly as helpless in a fight as Tresti.” She caught the cloud of uncertainty in Jodi's pale blue eyes, and said, surprised, “I thought everybody knew about this sword of mine.”
“There's stories, but frankly, lady—”
“Keth. I, as Tarma would tell you, am no lady.”
That brought a glimmer of smile. “Keth, then. Well, none of
have ever seen that blade do anything but heal.”
“Need's better at causing wounds than curing them, at least in
hands,” Kethry told her. “That's her gift to me; in a fight, she makes a mage the equal of any swordswoman born. If it comes to magic, though, she's pretty well useless for my purposes—it's to a fighter she gives magic immunity. But—I'll tell you what, I've got a notion. If it comes to battle by magery, I'll try and get her to you before I get involved in a duel arcane; she'll shield you from even a godling's magic. Tarma proved that, once. She may even be able to shield more than one, if you all crowd together.”
There was a flash of interest at that, and a hint of relief. “Then I think I'll worry less about you. Well—there's a reason three that we're riding tail: if we find we've ridden straight into ambush at trail's end, we're the lot that's got the best chance of getting one of us back to tell Leamount.”
“Gah. Grim reasons, all of them—can we stop here for a breath or two?”
They had just topped a ridge, with sufficient space between them and the next in line that a few moments spent halted wouldn't hamper his progress any. Jodi looked about her, grimaced, then nodded with reluctance. “A bit exposed to my mind, but—”
“This won't take long.” Kethry gathered the threads of earth-magic, the subtlest and least detectable of all the mage-energies, and whispered a command along those particular threads that traced their path across the hills. There was an almost imperceptible shift in the energy flows, then the spell settled into place and became invisible even to the one who had set it. The difference was that Kethry was now at one with the path; she
the path through the hills, from end to end, like a whisper of sand across the surface of her mental “skin.” If the path was going to collapse, the backlash would alert her.
“Let's go—”
“That's all there is to it?” Jodi looked at her askance.
“Magery isn't all lightnings and thunders. The best magery is as subtle as a tripwire, and as hard to detect.”
“Well.” Jodi sent her mount picking a careful path down the hillside, and looked back at Kethry with an almost-smile. “I think I could get to appreciate magery.”
Kethry grinned outright, remembering that Jodi's other specialty was subterfuge, infiltration, and assassination. “Take my word for it, the real difference between a Masterclass mage and an apprentice is not in the amount of power, it's in the usage. You've been over this trail already; what do you think—are we going to make trail's end by dark?.”
Jodi narrowed her eyes, taking a moment. “No,” she said finally, “I don't think so. That's when I'll take point, when it starts to get dark. And that's when we'll have to be most alert.”
Kethry nodded, absently, and pulled her hood closer about her neck against a lick of wind. “If an attack comes, it's likely to be then. And the same goes for accident?”
It was growing dark, far faster than Kethry liked, and there was still no end to the trail in sight. But there had also been no sign that their movement was being followed—
Suddenly her nerves twanged like an ill-tuned harpstring. For one short, disorienting moment, she vibrated in backlash, for that heartbeat or two of time completely helpless to think or act. Then nearly fifteen years of training and practice took over, and without even being aware of it, she gathered mage-energy from the core of her very being and formed a net of it—a net to catch what was even now about to fall.
Just in time; up ahead in the darkness, she heard the slide of rock, a horse's fear-ridden shriek, and the harsh cry of a man seeing his own death looming in his face. She felt the energy-net sag, strain—then hold.
She clamped her knees around Hellsbane's barrel and dropped her reins, telling the horse mutely to “stand.” The battlesteed obeyed, bracing all four hooves, far steadier than the rocks about her. Kethry firmed her concentration until it was adamantine, and closed her eyes against distraction. Since she could not see what she was doing, this would take every wisp of her attention—
Gently, this must be done as gently as handling a pennybird chick new-hatched.
If she frightened the horse, and it writhed out of her energy-net—horse and rider would plummet to their doom.
She cupped her hands before her, echoing the form of the power-net, and contemplated it.
Broken lines of power showed her where the path had collapsed, and the positioning of her “net” told her without her seeing the trail ahead just where her captives were cradled.
“Keth—” Jodi's voice came from the darkness ahead, calm and steady; no sign of panic there. “We lost a very short section of the path; those of you behind us won't have any problem jumping the gap. The immediate problem is the rider that went over. It's Gerrold and Vetch; the horse is half over on his right side and Gerrold's pinned under him, but neither one of them is hurt and you caught both before they slid more than a few feet. Gerrold's got the beast barely calmed, but he's not struggling. Can you do anything more for them other than just holding them?”
Kethry eased her concentration just enough to answer. “If I get them righted, maybe raise them a bit, can he get Vetch back onto the path?”
“You can do that?”
“I can try—”
Hoof sounds going, then returning. Kethry “read” the lines of energy cradling the man and beast, slowly getting a picture of how they were lying by the shape of the energy-net.
“Gerrold's got Vetch gentled and behaving. He says if you take it slow—”
Kethry did not answer, needing all her focus on the task at hand. Slowly she moved her fingers; as she did she lessened the pressure on one side of the net, increased it on the other, until the shape within began to tilt upright. There was a lessening of tension within the net, as horse and rider lost fear; that helped.
Now, beneath the hooves of the trapped horse she firmed the net until it was as strong as the steadiest ground, taking away some of the mage threads from the sides to do so. When nothing untoward occurred, she took more of those threads, using them to raise the level of that surface, slowly, carefully, so as not to startle the horse. One by one she rewove those threads, raising the platform thumblength by agonizing thumblength.
She was shaking and drenched with sweat by the time she got it high enough, and just about at the end of her strength. When a clatter of hooves on rock and an exultant shout told her that Gerrold had gotten his mount back onto safe ground, she had only enough energy left to cling to her saddle for the last few furlongs of the journey.
“Right now,” Idra said quietly, stretched out along a hilltop next to Tarma, “The old war-horse should be giving them a good imitation of a
old war-horse.”
The hilltop gave them a fairly tolerable view for furlongs in any direction; they were just beyond the range of Kelcrag's sentries, and Kethry was shielding them in the way she had learned from the example of Moonsong k‘Vala, the Tale'edras Adept from the Pelagiris Forest—making them seem a part of the landscape—to mage-sight, just a thicket of brinle-bushes. In the far distance was the pass; filling it was the dark blot of Kelcrag's forces.
At this moment—as he had for the last two days—Leamount was giving a convincing imitation of a commander truly interested in coming to an agreement with his enemy. Heralds had been coming and going hour by hour with offers and counter-offers—all of this false negotiation buying time for the Hawks to get into place.
“Well, it's now or never,” Idra said finally, as she and Tarma abandoned their height and squirmed down their side of the hill to join her company. “Kethry?”
Kethry, on foot like all the rest, nodded and joined hands with her two mage-partners. “Shield your eyes,” she warned them. “It'll go on a count of five.”
Tarma and the rest of the Hawks averted their eyes and turned their horses' heads away as Kethry counted slowly. When Kethry reached five, there was a flare of light so bright that it shone redly through Tarma's eyelids even with her head turned. It was followed by a second flash, and then a third.
From a distance it would look like the lightning that flickered every day along the hillsides. But Leamount's mages were watching this particular spot for just that signal of three flickers of light, and testing for energy-auras to see if it was mage-light and not natural lightning. Now Leamount would break off his negotiations and resume his attacks on Kelcrag's army, concentrating on the eastern edge. That would seem reasonable: Kelcrag had stationed his foot there; they might be vulnerable to a charge of heavy cavalry. Leamount's own western flank was commanded by Lord Shoveral, whose standard was a badger and whose mode of battle matched his token; he was implacable in defense, but no one had yet seen him on the attack, so Kelcrag might well believe that he had no heart for it.
He was, one hoped, about to be surprised.
One also hoped, fervently, that Kelcrag's mages had not noticed that it was mage-light and not lightning that had flickered to their rear.
:They've no reason to look for mage-light, mindmate,: Warrl said soberly. :Kelcrag's wizards are all courtly types. They very seldom think about hiding what they're doing, or trying to make it seem like something natural. To them, mage-light is something to illuminate a room with, not something to use for a signal. If they wish to pass messages, they make a sending.:
“I hope you're right, Furface,” Tarma replied, mounting. “The more surprised they are, the more of us are going to survive this.”
At Idra's signal, the Hawks moved into a disciplined canter; no point in trying too hard to stay undercover now.
They urged their mounts over hills covered only with scraggy bushes and dead, dry grass; they would have been hard put to find any cover if they'd needed it. But luck was with them.
They topped a final hilltop and only then encountered Kelcrag's few sentries. They were all afoot; the lead riders coldly picked them off with a few well-placed arrows before they could sound an alert. The sentries fell, either pierced with arrows or stumbling over their wounded comrades. And the fallen were trampled—for the Hawks' horses were war-trained, and a war-trained horse does not hesitate when given the signal to make certain of a fallen foe. That left no chance that Kelcrag could be warned.
Ahead of the riders, now stretching their canter into a gallop, was the baggage train.
Kethry and her two companions rode to the forefront for the moment. Each mage was haloed by one of Kethry's glowing mage-shields; a shield that blurred the edges of vision around a mage and his mount as well. It made Tarma's eyes ache to look at them, so she tried not to. The shields wouldn't deflect missiles, but not being able to look straight at your target made that target
hard to hit.
The two hedge-wizards growled guttural phrases, made elaborate throwing motions—and smoking, flaming balls appeared in the air before their hands to fly at the wagons and supplies. Kethry simply locked her hands together and held them out in front of her—and each wagon or tent she stared at burst into hot blue flame seemingly of its own accord.
BOOK: Valdemar 05 - [Vows & Honor 02] - Oathbreakers
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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