In the grey light of the hour just before dawn, a figure on horseback was speeding through the countryside, alone in the forests and meadows but for the animals frightened by its passage. Low on the horizon was the wall of a magnificent city, projecting a false sense of calm and security. The rider would reach that wall soon, that wall which contained the seeds of turmoil that would soon be ripe.***
In the dungeons of the castle, a woman was screaming.
Roshea’s head ached; he felt like yelling himself at the slightest movement. He opened his eyes, but they would not see properly. He was dimly aware of being stretched uncomfortably, his back against a hard surface but upright. His hands were secured above his head, yes; he had been captured. Had Sir Jarrah made it away? He thought so. Such a skilled and experienced fighter could hardly fail to have made it out. And for what small part he had played, Roshea was proud.
He was in a bit of a situation himself, however. His head didn’t hurt as much now and he felt more lucid, so he chanced opening his eyes again. This time they focused after a few seconds, and Roshea was able to see that he was indeed in a dungeon, secured by his hands against a cold stone wall.
The woman screamed again. He couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but he knew it was near, and he knew who it was. Cassie, he thought with some anguish. It wasn’t fair to have involved her. This was Sir Jarrah’s fight, Roshea’s fight. They were the good guys, and the good guys didn’t bring innocent civilians to the front lines.
There were footsteps in the corridor outside, the clopping of heavy boots accompanied by softer footfalls and the distinct noise of something being dragged. The door to Roshea’s cell swung open, letting in a bit more light. Several people entered, one of them suspended between two others. Cassie, bloody and nearly unconscious, was dropped unmercifully to the floor. Another woman stepped over her indifferently, approaching Roshea.
Roshea looked into the eyes of Ophelia, the witch. She was beautiful, in a forbidden and terrible way. He felt a curious mixture of hatred and attraction as he held her gaze defiantly. Sir Jarrah had a knack for making a dignified figure in any conceivable situation; Roshea did his best to seem in control.
He sensed it wasn’t working. Ophelia smiled at him in a rather mocking manner. He supposed even the best would have trouble seeming in control with their hands manacled above their heads. “We need to talk,” she said sweetly.
“Now, let’s be civil about this,” Ophelia said with reproach. “You’ve already caused this woman,” she continued, nudging Cassie’s prone form with her toe, “a great deal of unnecessary pain. We’ve no limit for what we can do to her, or you. So kindly tell me what you know—or think you know—and what you plan to do with that knowledge.”
Rather straightforward. Roshea attempted an ingratiating smile. Ophelia returned a condescending smirk that caused a hot flash of anger in him. “Witch,” he spat.
“Witch?” Ophelia repeated. She laughed. “Witch! How vile.”
Roshea was fired up and ready to launch into a diatribe against this beastly woman. Before he had a chance to unleash a flood of insults, he heard rapid footsteps. Ophelia heard them too and turned in time to see a frantic looking little man enter the cell. He could not have looked more agitated if he were waving his arms about. “My Lady!” he cried.
“What is it?” the witch snapped.
“There has been a messenger from Misthalin! They call for aid!”
Misthalin? Aid for what? Roshea was in the dark about this particular development. Sir Jarrah usually kept him and the other knights reasonably well informed of the goings-on in court. Perhaps this had to do with the meeting Jarrah had been called to; the one he never had a chance to tell them about.
Ophelia was excited. “I shall attend the king at once.” The little man bowed and hurried from the cell. Ophelia collected her guards and made to leave as well. At the cell door, she turned back to Roshea. “We will talk again later,” she promised. Then she was gone, and Roshea was alone.
Not alone. Cassie still lay on the floor.
“Cassie! Hey! Cassie, wake up!”
She stirred, rolling enough to look up at him. “You’re okay,” she said hoarsely.
“I’m sorry,” Roshea said, hanging his head. “We should not have involved you in this. This is not your fight.”
“Not my fight?” Cassie raised her head slightly, and even in the gloom of the cell Roshea could see that she was glaring at him. “Not my fight? Don’t you dare tell me this is not my fight.” She struggled to sit up, talking over Roshea’s protests. “There is something going on here, something bigger than you and me and Sir Jarrah. You brought me into your confidences in exchange for a place to stay, and you know what? I’m damn glad you did. Because whatever that Ophelia woman is doing,” she finally gave up attempting to rise and continued from the floor, “is everyone’s problem. Everyone’s fight. And because I believe that, I couldn’t be happier to be here, leading the charge.”***
A full-scale rebellion was about to break out.
It infuriated Ophelia that she could do nothing to stop it. The prisoners were uncooperative, and without information the loyal paladins and guards could do nothing but be on the lookout. They would be fighting the defensive fight when the pot finally boiled over.
She turned back to the young man beside her. “Jax,” she said, layering her voice with sincerity and urgency, “a very large hope rests on your shoulders. The king regrets that he could not be here for your departure, but let that not detract from the importance of your mission. What you carry will secure the aid of Misthalin in crushing these rebels and strengthen the alliance of two great kingdoms. You cannot fail.”
The skilled young paladin saluted crisply. “On my honor as a knight of Kandarin, and on penalty of death, I shall not fail.”
He was bought. Ophelia had to struggle to hide a triumphant smile. “Then go,” she urged. Jax saluted again and mounted his horse. He wore no armor and carried the whole of his supplies in a single saddlebag. Without a glance backwards, he spurred the horse into a canter and set off, crossing the drawbridge and quickly vanishing among the houses of the city.
Ophelia stared after him, contemplating the strangely quiet city. The rioters were gone for now. Her momentary triumph has dissipated. These next few days and weeks would be the true test of her commitment to Lord Drakan. She could not fail Drakan; she fervently hoped that Jax would not fail her.