Chapter 11 Chains


Keleios' eyes opened to dusk. The sky had been bled dark. The forest was a black bulk against a grey-silver sky where the last light of day struggled against the dark. Keleios felt refreshed. Magic was there for the calling again. Her body felt good, as if she had slept for a week. She wondered what had been in the potion the black healer gave her, for she felt remarkably well, better than she had expected.
She could see Eroar the Dragonmage curled head over tail, asleep, deep, past dreaming. She marveled at his true form. This would be only the third time she had seen it. His scales were a rich blue like the ocean far from land. His spine ridge was black, as were his claws; his true form bulked large and frightening.
Poth was a warm weight across her legs. Keleios lay still, trying not to disturb the cat. Her black and white fur was matted and dirty. She had been too tired even to groom. The cat flexed in her sleep, one ear twitching as if it caught a distant sound.
Keleios smiled in the dusk. Most wizards did not care for animals that did not earn their keep as familiar or worker. Even Keleios would never admit how much the cat meant to her.
Breena was tending the two fires, one for cooking and one for brewing potions. She fed sticks to the fire, the orange glow showing her face drawn and tired.
Carrick's nearly bald head showed above blankets. The rise and fall of his chest told Keleios he was alive. Keleios wondered if he too had been given a potion or if he would be allowed to sleep until healed. How Carrick hated magic potions.
Two men appeared, wearing the livery of the High Councilman, a black background with a red demon-spitting fire. Breena stood and was joined by the brown-haired black healer. The tallest one gave a rolled parchment to them. The witch took it. The paper sounded stiff, crinkling when she touched it, very official.
The tall one spoke in formal correct tones. "High Councilman Nesbit has decreed all surviving journeymen or teachers, traitors. We have come to ask you to ready the prisoners for moving."
Keleios had seen Breena truly angry only twice, each time glad that it was directed elsewhere. "I can read. Let me understand that the High Councilman of Astrantha has ordered injured and unconscious people imprisoned."
The guards shifted uneasily, for it was considered ill luck to interfere with a healer.
"Why doesn't he take the children, too?"
"They are young and can be reconditioned in the proper Astranthian school."
"And the weapons master, Carrick, is he to be imprisoned also?"
"No, he was doing the job he was paid to do. There is no treachery in that."
Keleios sought outward with her mind. A teleport block had gone up around the area. Teleporting was not one of her better spells but she would have risked appearing inside a tree, or another person, to escape Nesbit's net. A teleport gone wrong was a very bad way to die, but the High Councilman's dungeons were famous for making you wish for death, any sort of death. She felt strong enough to take the two guards and fight her way free. If magic were useless, then there was always steel.
Three more guards appeared.
Breena let her hand fall to her short sword. "You are not taking them like this, all unknowing."
"Please, healer, do not make us fight you."
The black healer stepped forward. "I promised the half-elf she would not go into captivity asleep." He pushed his cloak behind his shoulder and rested his hand on his sword pommel.
"I am not asleep."
Everyone jumped at the unexpected words and turned. Keleios sat up and said, "I thank you both for defending me, but I am quite able to defend myself." Poth, who had been awake for some time, stretched and leapt to the ground, yellow eyes regarding the men.
A deep rumbling voice sounded. "I, too, am awake."
Eroar's eyes caught the firelight as he raised his head. The eyes sparkled orange and fire-filled, and the dragon blew a questing breath of smoke.
The guards shifted uneasily, drawing nearer to each other like frightened children.
A smooth voice came from the forest. "There will be none of that, not unless you want to give me a reason to kill you all."
Longbowmen stepped from the concealing trees. Given a reason, they would kill all who stood in the clearing, except Eroar. It would be a miraculous shot that penetrated his scales by firelight. The wind shifted, and Keleios caught the sharp scent of crushed dragon's bane. Eroar blew another breath of smoke and stared at the men.
Nesbit stepped into the clearing. The archers did not step down. "Be reasonable, Keleios."
"I am ready to be reasonable, Nesbit. What did you have in mind?"
He motioned for an old peasant man to come forward. His blue eyes were faded to grey and his short body had bowed with age. He held chains in his hands. They rattled and clanked as he made his way across the ground. "You and all your magic friends wear these while we transport you to exile."
Keleios narrowed her eyes and hissed, "I will not wear those foul things."
"It is that or . . . " He let it trail off, but the alternatives were clear.
Breena asked, "What is wrong with the chains?"
Lothor answered, rising from where he had slept. "They are covered with runes of binding. No magic may be used against them. If you wear them, you are impotent."
Breena said, "Runes of binding are forbidden magic."
Nesbit simply smiled and stared at Keleios.
"Nesbit, I cannot; I am half-elf. The things will near kill me."
"That is the only safe way to transport such as you, and you know it."
"If I give my word not to escape, you can trust it."
"Your word is not good enough; no one's is."
"Not even your own."
Nesbit waved it away and said, "We waste time. Do you agree to exile, or do we kill you here?"
Tobin rose and stood beside Keleios, "What you ask of her is unfair, and you know it."
"I know old wives' tales; nothing more." He waited only a moment and said, "Decide, Keleios, decide now."
She realized that he wanted an excuse to kill them all. Martyrs or not, he was nervous now and wanted it taken care of one way or another. Perhaps he had overstepped his bounds, and other council members were rebelling, other aristocrats. "Very well."
Nesbit motioned the old man forward. He came tottering near, weighed down with chains. Eroar snaked his neck out, forcing the man to brush his fearsome jaws.
The old man hesitated, unwilling to pass the dragon.
Nesbit gave a short barking laugh. "These little games only waste time. The dragon will not hurt you, old man. Go on!" The old man shuffled forward, more afraid of Nesbit than any dragon. After all, dragons did not torture a man when you displeased them.
Keleios folded her arms, afraid. The runes of binding excluded all magic. Elves were by nature magic, not merely spells, but substance. Nesbit called it old wives' tales, but those tales said runes of binding could kill elves.
"Come, Keleios, have you decided or not? Live or die."
She held out her hands slowly, fists clenched. The man's thin blue-veined hands held out a set of bracelets too big for her small wrists. The silver metal slipped round, clicked shut, and Nesbit spoke a word. The metal shrank to fit her. They snapped into place with a second spell, and Keleios was alone. Her magic was gone. She gasped, trying to bring air into her lungs. The cat screeched. Eroar bellowed, and the chain carrier stumbled backward. He fell to the ground in a clatter of chains.
"We can still kill her, dragon, so hold yourself in."
"I control myself, but there will come a day, human."
"I think not." He watched the man struggle to his feet and said, "Manacles."
"But, Lord Nesbit, she is but a girl."
"That girl could crush your skull with one hand."
The old man looked doubtful but shuffled forward and snapped them into place. Keleios was aware of it, but it didn't matter. Was this how it felt to be merely human? No, this was awful; this was a part of herself gone missing.
It was as if the world had shifted, leaving Keleios behind. She stood where she had been and yet was far away. The air was close, heavy, and hard to breathe.
Tobin was bound. He stared around at the trees as if seeing them for the first time. He whispered, "It's like being blind."
Keleios' voice was the faintest of sounds. "Worse."
Lothor stepped forward. His skin was its normal snowy white; his silver eyes caught the fire like glass. "I am going with her."
"There is no need. You are a diplomat caught in unfortunate circumstances and are free to go."
"I cannot."
"What do you mean, cannot?"
"I am her consort. Where she goes, I go."
A look of amazement passed Nesbit's face. "Consorts." He walked to stand in front of Keleios. "Consort with a black healer, Keleios, I would never have thought it of you."
Keleios struggled to answer him, trying to draw herself back. The runes were trying to chase her from herself.
He motioned for the man to put chains on Lothor. "You do understand my position."
"Of course." A bead of sweat broke on the half-elf's brow when the chains were in place.
Nesbit turned back to Keleios. "If I had known your taste in men, we could have arranged something."
Keleios found her voice. "We could never arrange something, Nesbit."
"Don't be too sure." He came close, caressing a finger down her cheek. "I'm sure you would be just as pleasant to bed as your sister was."
She stared at him, brown eyes gone black with anger. "Methia has always had poor taste in men."
His hand traveled downward, and Breena was there jerking him backward. His sword drew with a hiss of steel, and hers answered it.
Malcolm stepped into the firelight. "I thought you had come to arrest the traitors, not harass the healers." The dwarf stepped between the two and motioned Breena back.
She spoke through clenched teeth. "He was touching her."
Nesbit said, "She is a prisoner."
Malcolm turned to Nesbit, his face blank, too blank. "Nesbit, I am allowing you to take her without a fight, but if I find that you have touched her in any way, I will challenge you to the sands."
He began, "Challenge me, dwarf," and Lord Garland stepped out of the dark.
He was naked above the waist, covered in grime and carrying a small cloth-wrapped bundle. His best-scenting hounds trailed round his legs. Garland had found few survivors. He stood beside Nesbit and forced the man to take the bundle. Nesbit held it clumsily, sword still free of its scarab. The bundle hung awkwardly, heavy in the wrong places, limp and hanging. Nesbit yelled and dropped it, leaping back from it. It hit the ground with a smack, and the cloth wrappings came loose. A child's face stared out of it, blue eyes staring impossibly wide.
Nesbit had dropped his sword and was trying to scrape at his arms as if to cleanse himself. Astranthians considered it very bad luck for a sorcerer to touch the recently dead. A stain of blood began to soak through the cloth, spreading until the child lay in blood-soaked wrappings.
"That body did not bleed while I carried it, Nesbit. You touch it but a moment, and it bleeds."
"No, I didn't kill her."
Malcolm said, "The dead always know who to blame. They are very good that way."
For the first time Nesbit looked frightened, as if expecting ghosts to appear screaming in the night.
If Belor had been there, they could have arranged something for the High Councilman, but the illusionist wasn't there, might never be with her again. Keleios had lost too much in the last few hours.
Her anger was gone, and only a cold knowledge remained. If she escaped, she would kill Nesbit. It gave her a measure of comfort.
Nesbit almost screamed, "Enough of this!" He drew his self-control like a cloak and picked his sword from the ground. He ran it automatically along his cloak to clean and sheathed it.
Breena had already sheathed hers.
"We will take the prisoners now."
Six guards gathered to him, swords bared and crossed on their chests. They surrounded the four prisoners. Four out of hundreds -- were they all that was left? Poth ran to stand by Keleios, and the councilman laughed and let her stay. Nesbit stood and raised his arms. For the first time Keleios felt nothing save dizziness and darkness as they were teleported away.
They appeared on bare grey rock. The sea rushed and whispered along the desolate shore. White foam rode the waves like pale ghosts. Stunted, wind-blown trees formed a winter-bare forest. There was no summer on this island. A small mountain rose in the center, but no buildings could be seen.
Keleios said, "Nesbit, you cannot leave us here."
He smiled pleasantly. "Oh, but I can, and will."
She pulled at her wrists, but without the golden bracers' enchanted strength, she could not snap them. Eroar growled deep in his chest. He was magic-stripped but nothing more. He still held his dragon strength. With a word Nesbit had one of the guards train a crossbow on Keleios. "One move, dragon, and she dies."
Lothor asked, "What manner of place is this?"
Nesbit made a broad gesture to include the entire island. "This is the Grey Isle, home of Harque the Witch. Your consort can tell you all about Harque and the Grey Isle."
Keleios spoke quietly, fighting to keep panic out of her voice. "Nesbit, do you intend leaving us here, chained, without magic or means to defend ourselves?"
"It was my intent."
The guards gathered at his back. "You see, Keleios, you are right. If I execute you, I will be at war with two nations, but if you die in exile, there will be no war. I want you dead, halfling. I saw my death in your eyes. I don't want you at my back some dark night."
He smiled and looked out to sea. "And there is what will finish you."
The last brush of twilight flickered over a thick grey cloud, mottled with hints of other colors. Sickly green, the purple of bruises, a faint yellow and the sickly sweet smell of corruption came with it. It crept only yards above the sea, sending out tendrils of itself, then drawing its bulk along the tendril, coming closer. It seemed to be crawling along some invisible surface. The wind was stale, testing like invisible hands and bringing the stench with it. A smell like long-closed sickrooms and rotting things rode the wind.
The light died as they watched it just offshore. Two of the Astranthian guard began to retch from the stink.
Lothor whispered, "A moreacstrom."
Tobin asked between deep swallows, "What does moreac mean?"
"It means death storm. The thing is a minion of Verm."
Nesbit said, "Very good."
Keleios stumbled forward and fell on the rock, half-catching herself. "Nesbit, in the name of whatever you hold sacred, at least undo the chains. Give us our magic and our bodies; give us a chance."
He raised his arms. "Goodbye, Keleios Incantare, demon-named Nightseer, we will not meet again."
"If we do, Nesbit, you are a dead man."
He vanished with his guard. The stench of old death came closer.
"Can we run from it, black healer?"
"No, it can hunt over land or water."
"What can we do, then?"
"The only thing is a circle of protection." He pulled at his chains, eyes staring at the near-invisible cloud. "And we aren't going to get that wearing these."
The storm began to rain into the sea in a sickly yellow rain that made the water boil at its passing. Tobin succumbed to the wind and began to vomit onto the rock.
Lothor said, "If we can't get free, we will die."
"That I know, black healer. Tell me something I don't know. Tell me something I can use to get us out of here."
He spoke quietly. "I can't."