The soldier glares at him and doesn’t reply. James glances to Qyrll who speaks to the man in his own language. The soldier replies back and Qyrll says, “He understands me.”

“Ask him what happened to Dave,” he says. “I…I need to know.”

Qyrll turns back to the man and for several minutes they exchange words. The soldier’s face gets a weird look to it as he talks to Qyrll. When at last the soldier finishes speaking, Qyrll turns back to the others.

“Well?” asks James.

The soldier had originally been a part of a mission to hit The Ranch and attempt to capture the rogue mage. But after the incident in the pass, all their plans changed. They had followed James’ group until they reached Ironhold and then settled in to wait and watch while he and the others combed the town.

Word was eventually given that they were on the move and so they began the task of following them. He and the others were never given a reason why an attack had not been launched upon the mage and his companions during their time at Ironhold. Some believed it because none wanted to face the magic which has ended some of the most powerful mages of the Empire. Others felt they were waiting for reinforcements.

After reaching the foot of Kiliticus, they were amazed to see two people on a poorly constructed raft paddle out into the middle of the lake and then sit there all day. At first they thought something would happen but were disappointed.

Finally, the two people came to shore and the group climbed up the side of the mountain and lights sprung to life on the darkened slope. It was at that time word was given for all units to converge on the lighted area.

Before they reached the area with the lights, they went out. Using lanterns, they continued the rest of the way and found the opening in the side of the outcropping. The mage in charge of the group, along with two other men began talking about the ramifications of what is happening.

They were there several minutes before the mage starts barking orders and has them make ready to enter. Then suddenly, a blinding white light erupts from the opening and a man stumbles forth.

The ground began to shake as the mage raises his hands and then the mountain caved in. Dust belched forth from the opening and when it cleared, there on the ground lay a man.

The mage and the civilians were next to him, the rest of the soldiers kept their distance. Clutched in the man’s hands was the source of the blinding light. In the light, they saw the man’s face contorted in some agony, maybe horror, later none could say for sure. An inarticulate cry began to emerge from him as the mage and the other two backed away.

The skin of the man began turning dark and his cries became more feral, less human. Spreading from where his hands gripped the object, the darkness spread quickly. Soon the man’s skin where it began had turned black as coal. The man’s cry was cut off when the black spread up his neck. By the time it covered his entire face, the man had stopped moving and lay frozen.

The light from what he clutched in his hands finally diminished completely and the only light left was that coming from the lanterns. The mage glanced to the others for a moment and then picked up a stick. Moving forward, he quickly struck the object and it broke free, as well as the man’s hands. They simply broke off at the wrists.

As the gem-like object hit the ground, the man began to crumble in on himself. After a couple minutes, only a pile of dark, fine dust was left. The mage picked up the gem with a cloth and put it into one of his belt pouches. Then they began moving out of there.

Qyrll glances to James as he says, “They discovered we were following them and laid a trap hoping to slow us down. The others are moving with all speed to reach the Empire.”

The horror of Dave’s fate is almost too much for him to believe. His best friend, life long companion. Good times, bad times, Dave had always been there for him.

The Empire! Anger, the likes of which he’s never experienced before erupts. The Empire took his friend, tortured him and in the end twisted him to their own ends. The Empire!

Looking down at the soldier at their feet, he says with barely controlled rage, “Kill him.”

Fifer looks to James who yells, “I said kill him!” He then glances to Jiron who nods. Striking out with his sword, he ends the life of the soldier.

Turning around abruptly, James goes to where Jiron is holding his horse and mounts. The others quickly get on their horses and then he takes off as fast as the terrain will allow him. When they pass by the horses left by dead soldiers, they pause momentarily while Fifer and Qyrll gather them and bring them along. Extra mounts will enable them to cover more ground quickly as they’ll be able to trade off from one to another.

James sits impatiently while the horses are being tied in a line and then once they’re ready, again bolts away down the trail. He doesn’t get too far before Qyrll comes to the fore. “Let me take the lead,” he says.

With a glare of irritation, James acquiesces and allows Qyrll to once more lead the way. After all, he knows the way back better than the rest. Also, he picked up on the ambush back there before any of the others.

They ride hard throughout the rest of the day, only pausing once in a while for the call of nature and to swap horses. Jorry has to help Uther down off of his and onto another when the time to change mounts comes. When he does, he takes notice of a growing red stain that’s gradually spreading from the point of entry. “You okay man?” he asks, worried. His friend’s face is pale and drawn.

Getting up onto the fresh mount, Uther grunts and then says, “You worry too much.”

“Be right back,” Jorry tells his friend and after receiving a nod, walks over to where James is finishing cinching the saddle on his spare mount. “Uther’s not doing too good,” he says.

Glancing back, he sees Uther in the saddle sitting quiet and still, which isn’t like him. “Anything we can do for him?” he asks.

“I don’t think so,” Jorry replies. “All this riding is hard on his wound. It isn’t going to heal.”

“Might be a good idea if you two take it slower,” he says.

“But you’ll need us,” insists Jorry.

“One more sword won’t make any difference,” he explains. “Besides, Uther couldn’t defend himself now even if his life depended on it. And in a little bit, it may. You two follow along behind as best you can and then head back to The Ranch.”

Glancing back to his friend who’s sitting askew in the saddle, he says, “I hate leaving you.”

“I know,” James says in understanding. “But at times, circumstances dictate for us to do that which we don’t want to.”

“You be careful,” Jorry tells him.

“We will,” he assures him. “You just take care of him.”

Jorry nods then returns to the side of his friend.

Once Qyrll has assisted Jiron in mounting another horse, they all mount and get going. When the others notice Jorry and Uther not moving to keep up with them, James explains the situation.

Making good time, they reach the shore of the large lake. The sun is almost down but no one even thinks about stopping. It’s going to be another clear night and they would rather travel slow than possibly allow the soldiers to get any further ahead of them. But they’ve all been up for over twenty four hours now as it is.

James calls for a brief rest so they can all get a little sleep. Catching them quickly will do them little good if they’re all so tired they can’t take them on effectively. They don’t stay very long, merely five hours or so before they’re off again.

Another couple hours finds them approaching the first river they encountered after leaving the mine area on their way to the ruins. Qyrll takes them upriver until they reach the ford then crosses over. On the far side, he stops and gets off his horse.

The others come toward him as he bends over and examines a pile of horse manure. Standing up, he says, “Looks like they camped here last night. Might not be more than a couple hours behind them.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Fifer says as Qyrll gets back in the saddle.

Turning his horse to head downriver, Qyrll leads them on.

As he follows behind Qyrll, James continues to ruminate about Dave, their life together and the tragic end of it all. His anger, which at first had burned like a white hot sun, has cooled a little and he can approach this in a more rational manner.

Last night he was all for razing the entire Empire to the ground, destroying all its cities and citizens. But now his need for vengeance is more directed against the ones responsible for this, the leaders behind the Empire. He feels slightly ashamed of himself for wishing harm on the innocents; the women, children, those who are not part of

Вы читаете The star of Morcyth
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