By Sheri L. McGathy
(As is, and I really mean that
Copyright© – No part of this may be reproduced without permission
"All right, birdboy," Dione shouted. "I've had it up to here with your antics." She illustrated by raising her hand to the level of her chin.
Ri-lee folded his arms over his chest and shook his head stubbornly.
"Grrrr." Dione waved her hands above her head before stomping away.
"You really should not have gotten into her private pack," Ovid offered. "It is hers to share as she allows."
"Nay, we are nestmates, there are no secrets," Ri-lee said.
"No, you damn little canary," Dione spun about, her finger wagging in front of Ri-lee's nose, "we aren't nestmates, and you keep your hands off of my stuff. You got that?"
Ri-lee folded his arms across his chest and looked skyward, completely dismissing her.
Dione mumbled. Shaking her head, she turned away, but came up short. Swinging back around, she rounded on the little CaRous. "Hand it over, birdboy, or I swear I will clip your wings myself!"
Ri-lee raised one eyebrow, then nodded once, and waved a hand out before him as if wiping away a spill. The illusion he had created melted into nothingness and he handed Dione the small book he had been holding all the time. "You grow stronger with each day, Nestmate Dione. Not many could have sensed my shields."
"You little…." Dione stammered, her face flushing multiple hues of pink.
She snatched the book from his outstretched hand and stomped away. Reaching the edge of the clearing, she threw her pack on the ground and quickly followed it down. There, alone, with her back turned to them, they could hear occasional snatches of "birdboy stew," and "roasted birdboy," drift out to them.
Callie looked to Ovid, her eyes imploring that he settle this, before walking over to join Dione.
Ri-lee bowed as she departed, then stated to Ovid, "Nestmate Dione's powers grow stronger with each passing of the sun. This is good. Much remains hidden, but I will bring these forward, too, my nestmate. This I promise you." Ri-lee bowed in Dione's direction, but she didn't look back.
"Ri-lee, leave Dione to her secrets," Lance stated as he entered the encampment.
"Ah, but I only strive to make her stronger. She must not shun her gifts," Ri-lee answered the larger man as he brushed past him.
"Even so, find another way that does not violate her trust. They are hers to share or keep as she allows."
Facing Ovid, the warrior stated in a tone that left no room to argue, "OrbWard, chart a course. We leave with the new sun."
"And Col," Lance threw back over his shoulder, "the answer remains no."
"But Lance," Col began, scowling as he shadowed the warrior across the encampment.
Callie rose to greet Col, but he spared her only the briefest nod before renewing his argument. "Lance–"
"No, Col!" Lance shouted. "This discussion is closed."
"Discussion?" Col shouted back. "This was no discussion. This was you deciding, and the rest of us having to follow."
The two stared each other down, neither giving quarter. Finally, Col looked away.
Davenhawkes continued to stare at the boy for a moment longer, frowning, and then he pulled his sword harness over his head and practically slammed it down upon his bedroll.
The air about both of them felt charged and the building silence was unnerving.
Col stood, his fists clenched at his side. All eyes turned in their direction.
Lance sighed as he lowered his large frame down to the awaiting pallet. He was so tired of the arguing. Col, at sixteen, was near a height with him. Many years of living their lifestyle had given the boy the physique of a man–tall, muscular–even if he still remained cursed with the rashness of youth.
Lance looked into Col's defiant stare and shook his head. "We leave at sun up."
Again Col started to protest, but the warrior held up his hand for silence. "They are many, Col, and we are few. We would only succeed in becoming enslaved ourselves. No," Lance added, "we must leave, or risk a fate not to our liking."
"Enslaved?" Ovid whispered. Then, as if he couldn't contain himself, he asked, the words pouring from him in a wild rush, "Slavers, here? We must leave now."
"The morn will be soon enough. But aye, there are Slavers here, and they have taken captives. Col has decided that he wants to free these souls, regardless of the consequences."
"I must agree with Davenhawkes," Ovid stated. "Slavers are dangerous."
"But Aldous has magic. We could…" Col began, but Aldous cut him off.
"Poppycock, boy. We cannot risk it. In this, Lance is correct."
Col swung away from them, his body held rigidly erect, the muscles in his arms bulging from the force of his clenched fists. His steps were hurried as he made his way across the campground. When he reached his bedroll, he threw himself down and turned his back to them.
"Col?" Callie bit her lower lip and waited for Col to acknowledge her. When he remained silent, she sighed and sought her own bedroll, quietly slipping beneath the covers. She sat staring vacantly into the fire, forcing her trembling hands to fumble about in a miserable attempt at unbraiding her long hair. Still biting her lower lip, she turned her face away from the glow of the firepit, but not fast enough to shield the hurt in her eyes from Dione.
Forgetting her own anger, Dione rose. "Here," she offered, softly patting Callie's fingers away from the braids. "Let me help. You're just making a mess."
Callie said nothing, just simply allowed Dione to work the braids free and comb the tangles from her hair.
Leaning close to Callie's ear, Dione whispered, "Col will come around. He always does. His heart is in the right place, but his mind is, as always, somewhere else. Lance is only doing what he thinks is best."
"Oh, I know," Callie volunteered. She closed here eyes, relishing the feel of the brush massaging her scalp as it flowed cleanly down the length of her now shining tresses. "It's just that, well, Col can be very stubborn."
Dione smirked. "And you don't think Lance can be?"
They both laughed.
Dione handed her the brush and said, "Now, to bed with you. Mark my words, if Lance says we leave early, we leave early."
"Good rest, Dione."
"Night, kiddo," she tossed back over her shoulder. "Night, Col."
A muffled reply echoed out to her from Col's direction, making her smile. Yes, Lance would insist they leave early, if only to get Col over this latest mood. She was already tired just thinking about it. She sought out her own pallet.
Col mumbled "good rest" as Dione passed, but his own rest seemed illusive, remaining awake long after the camp had grown still. He heard the soft snorts Ovid made while he dreamed and could just make out the strange whistle Ri-lee created when his mouth fell open in sleep. He envied them. All about, the strange scampering and odd calls of unknown night creatures could be heard as they moved in the shadows on the fringes of Aldous' wards, but none could enter. These familiar yet alien sounds usually lulled him to sleep. Yet, the longer sleep eluded Col, those once soothing sounds grew louder and more irritating.
Col sighed as he lay on his back, hands folded beneath his head, staring up at the endless expanse of open, cloudless sky and the stars that dotted the opaque canvas winking down at him. Light from the full moon blanketed the dark in an ethereal glow, causing halos of eerie shadows to form upon the ground. The land appeared alive and unnatural in its light. The effect wasn't comforting. The fire had burnt low. Col heard the occasional snap of a branch as it surrendered to the heat, followed by the soft hiss of the flame as the branch was devoured.
He admitted, even if it was only to himself, that Lance was correct. He had finally calmed down enough to understand what his protector was trying to say, but it still didn't make it any easier to turn and walk away. One day, he thought, I shall go home and claim what is mine. Then, I will end this torment. One day, he promised himself as sleep finally claimed him.
He came awake, confused.
"Help me," a voice murmured in his ear.
"Who?" and just as quickly, "What the…?" as he swatted at the uncomfortable humming near his ear.
"Help me," the wind seemed to sigh as its hot breath brushed across his face.
Col sat up and looked about the encampment. He tried to focus, tried to sense what had awoken him, but his thoughts remained scattered and disjointed. Nothing stirred. Satisfied there was no danger, he yawned and lied down, and quickly fell asleep. He dreamed.
Pleasant dreams, vivid, emotional dreams, dreams that seemed more real than fantasy. It was as if he could actually feel the gentle caress against his cheek. He smiled at the soft, warm sensation of another wrapping their arms about his chest and pressing their body close. So inviting. He murmured, but did not wake, content to stay within the welcome bliss.
Noises filtered into his dream-fogged thoughts, shortening the pleasure of the dream. Col opened his eyes to the sheepish rays of the new sun rising over the treetops ringing their camp. He continued to lie still, hoping to capture and hold the emotion that the dream had produced; hoping to tuck the sensations away to be recalled at a later time. He smiled. The dream had been so real, so pleasant. He swore that he could still feel the soft warmth of another pressed against him and the slight weight of an arm about him.
Realizing he had to abandon the indulgence and prepare to leave, he sat up and stretched the kinks from his body. And that's when he saw it. He froze, unable to pull his gaze from his bedroll.
The blankets draped across a shape he could not see while it rose and fell with the gentle rhythm of breathing.
He jumped to his feet and striped the pallet of its blankets. An exclamation of surprise rose from the bedroll accompanied by the soft rustle of clothing. He was shocked to feel a gentle touch upon his cheek. He raised his hand to the spot. He then felt the movement of the other as it darted past him. Whatever had been there, was now gone.
Col quickly looked to see if anyone else had noticed the impression in his bedroll. None seemed to have. His companions were up and moving quickly about the camp making ready to depart.
His sister called to him, "Col, hungry?"
Callie's voice galvanized him. He waded up his blankets and tossed the crumbled bedroll into his backpack and struggled to tie it shut. Slinging it over his shoulder, he hurried to join the others. He accepted the bread and meat roll Callie offered, and gobbled it down in silence, chasing it with a cup of water. Callie watched, saying nothing, yet making a mental note of his edginess.
By the time the others had finished their meal and were ready to depart, Col had convinced himself that the shape and the touch had been simply lingering residue from a welcomed dream and his lack of sleep, nothing more.
"What ails you boy?" Aldous asked, taking in Col's disheveled look, his darting stare and his jerky movements.
"Nothing," Col snapped too quickly.
Callie turned concerned eyes upon him, but he only answered her with a shake of his head.
"I ask only as your skin appears even paler than my own," Aldous cackled.
Lance turned to study the boy. "Col?"
"Really, nothing. Let's go," Col answered as he moved to join Ri-lee at the edge of the camp where the little CaRous was spreading his wings toward the rising sun, greeting the new day.
Lance silently watched. Col did seem preoccupied, constantly running his hand through his hair and looking about as if expecting something to happen. He appeared unable to stand still and anxious to be away.
What now? Lance wondered. Out loud he announced, "It is time."
Ovid nodded and moved next to Aldous and pulled the Orb Key from its pouch. Holding it out before him, he closed his eyes and waited for the wizard to add his touch to the key. The Orb glowed white hot, and the air before them split as the portal yawned into existence.
Lance entered first, sword held before him. When he signaled the "all clear," Dione and then Ri-lee ducked through, followed quickly by Callie and Col. The wizard waved a hand, bidding Ovid go next as he continued to murmur the words of power, holding the portal open to allow the OrbWard and key to pass safely through. This time he would step in last.
Just as Ovid's bulk framed the entry, Col came flying out, knocking Ovid and the wizard to the ground. The Orb Key leapt from Ovid's hand and flew through the Portal to roll down the tunnel into the shadows. With its light now extinguished, the Portal opening slammed shut, sealing Lance, Dione, Callie, and Ri-lee inside; leaving Col, Ovid and the wizard behind.
Lance whirled about and shoved his shoulder against the rapidly sealing side. He was too slow. The walls had already grown solid. He raised his fists and pounded against the walls to no avail. An anguished sound escaped his lips as he leaned his forehead against the cool surface. His shoulders showed his defeat long before he turned to face them, revealing that same defeat in his gray eyes.
Lance faced Callie, not knowing how to express his failure to his charge. He had failed her. He had failed Col. He had failed them all. They were trapped in the portals with no wizard or OrbWard…the key was of no consequence if there was none among them who could use it. For the first time in his life, he did not know what to do.
Callie looked into his eyes and slowly crossed the space between them to take the warrior's huge hand within her own petite one. She gave him a sad smile and turned away. She bent down and when she turned back around, she held the Orb Key out before her. It glowed weakly. Lance's head came up.
"I see it, Lance, but I don't understand it," she replied.
"If it glows, it responds," the warrior continued. Perhaps, he thought, all was not lost.
Dione watched the despair that had threatened to destroy Lance, burn away, to be replaced with a renewed determination. Just that quickly, Dione saw a fire leap to life in his sad eyes.
"Now what?" Ri-lee asked.
Lance straightened his shoulders and raised his head to face them. Drawing his sword, he stated, "We go on."
"What?" Dione stammered. "How can we? We can't just leave ‘em."
"We go on, and hope Aldous can find a way to rejoin us." He reached down and took Callie's hand again. He gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile. "And trust we can find a way to make that Key work for us."
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