All material contained here is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.
Song Suggestion: Desolation by Nox Arcana
“The forest is on fire.” Ty said. He stopped, looking back at Gray. The girl was asleep on Gray’s shoulder, crimson hair speckled with snowflakes. He’d wrapped the edge of his cloak around her to keep her out of the frigid air. He thought she might have a fever; the warmth coming off her was enough that, even with the chill wind howling around them, where she rested was near to sweating.
Gray looked up at the forest and his heart began to sink. Yes, the forest was on fire. The flames were not ordinary, though. They were a deep, angry red. They lit the southern sky in a wide swath, like a sunrise gone wrong. And at its central point, they rose up, clearly seen, a hellish, towering inferno.
“Mother,” Ty whispered and started to run toward the forest. Gray caught his arm and jerked him roughly back.
“If she wasn’t caught in it, she won’t be there now.” Gray said.
“And if she was?” Ty snapped, jerking free.
“Then you can’t help her,” Gray snapped back. “That’s dwarvish fire. If even a spark gets on you, there will be no putting it out. It will spread and burn until there is nothing left of the chemicals that feed it and it is hellish slow to consume itself.” He tugged at the boy’s arm. “Come with us instead. You might help me with the girl. You can save her yet. But if you run off into that forest, it is unlikely you will come out again.”
“I need to help Mother,” Ty said. “Or find her, at least.”
Gray shrugged. “Help me and we can look for her together after I’ve finished my business. This won’t take me long; whatever the boy might have been to the weavers, he’s gone now and they’ve only themselves to thank for it.”
“Aren’t you afraid they will blame you anyway?”
Gray patted his left breast, where the contract was sewn into the fabric of his cloak. “I’ve got insurance. I did not kill the boy or sabotage him. He died because the weavers were too impatient and forced him to expose himself. I tried to save him. Our bargain is fulfilled.”
“Weavers are liars,” Ty protested.
“That they are. Which is why, if you intend to deal with one, you need to know how to bind them to their word. No matter if they want to kill me – and I assure you, they will – there is not a weaver which has pledged himself to The Coven that may touch me, now.”
They walked on in silence for a few more minutes. Despite Ty’s insistence he must find Angelica, he stayed with Gray. They both knew why and it lay between them, heavy as an anvil, but they did not say it; it was easier to pretend they might find Angelica still living, far away from those fierce flames. But there was no question that, had she been able to escape, she’d have come after her son. Those booms they’d heard earlier were explosions and, unless Gray was miscalculating, it had been right where the camp was. He’d thought that when he heard them and now, seeing those flames, he feared the worst.
“Why do Dwarves need such fire,” Ty asked suddenly.
Gray was happy to answer, if only to avoid thinking about Angelica. “They don’t. It’s a byproduct. They call it by many names, but the most common is the mountain cleaver. It’s an explosive they mix up and they use it only when they’re digging out the first tunnel in a new mountain; for all that it might break a boulder in half, it also might bring twenty more from the ceiling. The fire it creates cannot be extinguished just by pouring water on it or trying to smother it. It will burn until there is none of the mixture left and, like I said before, it is a slow fuel.”
“Do the weavers have dwarves now too? Or is this something else?” Ty asked.
“That I don’t know,” Gray said. “They may have a new ally. There is no shortage of those that would like to gain more power. It wouldn’t be dwarves; they don’t attack other lands. They stay in their mountains, mining and building. They are fierce and they love to fight, but they don’t go looking for trouble. I think it’s odd that the weavers have their potion, but I don’t know where they would have gotten it. Dwarves loathe magic casters. They are sturdy, grounded folk that think it perilous to play with such things. They don’t give the cleaver to anyone, either; they fear it as much as they appreciate its usefulness. Some say there’s dragon blood in it, but I doubt that; a dragon wouldn’t give its blood just for blasting tunnels.”
They came to the long line of the forest on the eastern edge of the city. Here, the chemise vines hung in a curtain from the trees, like a lady’s skirts. Gray and Ty slipped past, into the dark under the trees, past the pale shimmer of the barrier. The first wave of warm air washed over them. Gray took a deep breath and was sorry; the acrid stench of the cleaver hung thick on the still, moist air and it gave him an instant, sharp pain in his head which felt like a very long, cold splinter driving into his brain.
They moved down a path laid with white stones, which had been wrought from moonsand so that they shown clear through the mist. No dirt covered them, none of the moss which grew in a thick carpet over all else had touched the stones, and they did not sink. For as long as Gray could remember, this had been true. Ahead, a wide, round clearing opened up and, over it, stood a tree. It was not like the slim, thinly rooted trees of the forest. It had a thick trunk and a wide canopy of twisted branches which reached out in all directions and were thick with pale, silvery leaves. Tales said that, when the first king was crowned in the clearing, before Blossom Town grew up around his castle, the tree had sprung up from the moss. Weaver magic, Gray suspected; they had loved their king, then. And every king since had been crowned there.
Now the lower branches of the tree were hung with dim lanterns and there were many weavers milling around in the light. Most of them wore the red and gray of ordinary weavers. One or two wore black. But the man Gray was looking for stood apart, leaning against the tree and Gray knew he was waiting for him. His robes were more silver than gray and the crimson edging looked like silk.
“Keep the girl here. Don’t show yourselves,” Gray said, handing the sleeping child to Ty. “My contract doesn’t include friends.”
Ty nodded and Gray moved forward. The Enforcers nearest the path looked up as he entered, but they did not move from their fires. They had meat roasting on spits and they seemed uninterested in leaving it.
The weaver under the tree stood up straighter at his approach. “Where’s the boy?” he asked without a greeting.
“Dead,” Gray replied. “You killed him with your impatience.” Gray didn’t bother to apologize; he’d done his best.
“He was a fire weaver,” the weaver said. “Surely he didn’t freeze.”
“He was a fire weaver freezing in a city full of Enforcers who kill every weaver they find.Would you like it spelled out for you?”
The weaver’s lips thinned. “So you’ve no proof with you?”
Gray sighed. “Well, you’re welcome to try and set me on fire. But, if I’m not lying, you know what will happen to you.”
The weaver raised one eyebrow. Then, without turning, he called out. “Mitrel. Come here.”
Another weaver jogged forward. His dark hair was slicked back and his bright, gray eyes were eager to please. “Yes, my Lord Tyrel, what do you need?” The new weaver was near to blushing and he bowed so low that he was nearly doubled over. If he had been a woman, Gray would have thought he was fawning over Tyrel.
Tyrel did not look impressed. “Burn this man,” he said, sounding bored.
Gray tensed; it was one thing to know, intellectually, that he was safe. It was another to test the rumors. He stood his ground, though. Mitrel turned and, with a small smirk, flicked his fingers at Gray. Fire flowed around him and he could feel the heat of it, deadly and hungry. But it did not burn him. Instead, it twisted back on its master, twisting itself around the weaver like a snake and sinking into his skin. Mitrel began to scream. His face turned ruddy then split open in cracks of fire. The flesh peeled back, burnt black, and he crumpled to the ground, smoke rolling from between his slightly parted lips. Silence fell.
Tyrel scowled down at the corpse. “Brother Mitrel wasn’t worth much,” he said. “Always getting in the way. The blizzard was his idea and he implemented it without waiting for me to return. So I suppose you’ve solved that problem for me. I’d rather have had him hung before The Coven by his toes, of course.”
Gray tried not to look disturbed and let his eyes wander up the tree. His stomach dropped. The lanterns in the tree weren’t actually lanterns of the normal sort. They were severed heads with their eyes cut out and mouths gaping, tongueless, so that the flames hovering inside could shine out.
“Ah, yes. The brigands in the woods. They’ve long been a nuisance,” Tyrel said, following his gaze. “Since long before we were driven from the city. They finally gave their position away and the queen ordered them destroyed. Those that did not burn ran right into the Enforcers. We gave them the meat; they don’t often get the sort of flesh they crave. But I didn’t want to waste their heads. Used in such a way, they keep off vengeful spirits, did you know that?”
“I didn’t,” Gray choked out, forcing himself to look away from Angelica’s face, beautiful, even now, in this terrible guise of death. “I’m sorry about the boy,” he managed.
“Did he have anyone with him?” Tyrel asked. “A friend, maybe? Or a girl? We thought he might have a sister.”
The instincts which had served Gray so well for so long kicked in. Maybe it was the slight inflection on the word ‘girl’ or the strange shine in his eyes, but the weaver was far more interested in Leo’s sister than he had been in the boy. Gray met his eyes and shrugged. “There was a young girl. She ran off during the fight and I didn’t think you’d care about her without him.”
“Indeed not,” the weaver said, but Gray could see his distress clearly now.
“She was only a little thing. Dressed in rags. She won’t last long in the storm. Most of the homeless are already dead. I wouldn’t worry about her.” Gray gave the man a thin smile. “You’ve no more use for me, I suppose. So I’ll just be on my way.” He made a bow and, somehow, managed not to look up at Angelica’s head, caught in the branches of the King Tree, guarding Tyrel from angry spirits. Had her son not been waiting in the shadows, if he did not feel it was his duty, now, to take care of the boy, he’d have grabbed the weaver and broken his neck, no matter the consequences. Instead, he turned and walked away and he did not look back.
In the forest, he quickly gathered the girl to him. “We need to run,” he told Ty.
“But Mother —”
“Forget her,” Gray said sharply. “We can do nothing for her now. The weavers killed them all and burned the camp.”
“We don’t know that they caught her, though,” Ty said.
“We do,” Gray hissed and grabbed his arm. “Your mother asked me to bring you back to her, if I could. I promised her that I would not let you come to harm. You must come with me, now. You must trust me.”
“How do you know she’s dead?” Ty asked.
Gray shook his head. “I will not tell you. Not here. This is no place for it. But your mother is gone.”
“Then I must avenge her,” Ty said, pulling away.
“And you will die,” Gray said. “Your mother spent her life saving orphans and protecting those that could not help themselves. She would not want you to throw your life away trying to take one or two weavers. If you want to hurt them, then come with me. There is something about this girl, something that has made them desperate.”
“Any idea what?” Ty asked.
“None,” Gray said. “But it was her, not her brother they really wanted. Which means we need to get her out of Iviradelle and figure out why. Will you come with me? Will you help me?”
“Where would we go?” the boy asked.
“As far away as we can get,” Gray replied, turning toward Aerie Falls. “Northeast, I think.”
“What’s Northeast?” Ty asked.
“Dwarves,” Gray said and started west; though he did not want the delay, he felt that Aerie Falls would give them a head start. The weavers would lose them there, if they tried to follow and, from there, he knew a path that would keep them hidden, so long as they were careful. “I want to have a talk with them about their knives.”