The Unbound Man
When a phoenix is about to die it builds a great nest upon a rock. Surrounded by twigs and leaves, it settles down among the tinder and there it gives itself over to immolation. The phoenix burns, the nest becomes ashes, and an ember is formed from which a new, younger bird will arise.
Sometimes the flame is too weak. The nest smoulders. The ember cools. The phoenix dies, yet its new self is not born. The ember hardens and dims and lies dormant, like a seed awaiting a spring that will never come.
But sometimes the flame is strong, so strong that the nest cannot contain it. It leaps and burns: a tree, a hillside, a forest. The fire spreads, and other embers that have long been cold and lifeless are kindled at last. Slowly, slowly, they awaken and remember what they are, and what they are to be.
When the fire is done, all is cloaked in ash. And who can say what embers now glow beneath the desolation, or when they might at last give birth?
So it is when empires die.
— Tiysus Oronayan, Histories, Third Volume
They were being followed, and Derrek was weary of it.
He lay back on the patchy grass and gazed at the glittering twilight sky. The evening was cooler than usual for summer; the breeze had turned that morning and now wafted down from the north like a whispered benediction, mild and refreshing, rustling the leaves of the trees surrounding the clearing. Somewhere in the dark, a nightbird called to its companions.
The sky had been clear the past three nights, ever since they found the small urn buried among the ruins of a modest, long-dead temple. There’d been nothing to suggest that anyone else had been there for centuries, still less that very day; but Derrek had felt eyes watching them as he pulled the urn from the earth, and again that evening as they made camp. They’d set a watch, despite the complaints — and, in the end, the somnolence — of Rawlen, but the dawn had arrived without incident.
Yet the feeling of being watched remained.
“Watch what you’re doing, boy! If I want your foul tea poured all over me, I’ll do it myself!”
Derrek sat up to see Callidora wiping ineffectually at her boot with a handful of grass. Cal was short and round, and had difficulty reaching her feet at the best of times. Rawlen stood frozen before her with the pot in hand, face flushed with embarrassment. Another trickle splashed over the back of Cal’s hand and she yelped. “Put it down, you fool boy, before you throw the rest of it over my head!”
Jolting into motion, Rawlen lowered the pot clumsily to the ground. His mouth opened and closed until at last he turned away, stumbling around the campfire and throwing himself down with a frustrated sigh. Derrek forced himself not to glare after him. A newborn foal would hinder us less.
He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the persistent ache in his back. Walking all day through a forest or sleeping on the hard earth had rarely bothered him before. Once, a long time ago, it had even been exciting. But lately he’d found himself missing the comfortable schoolhouse beds, the generous meals, the opportunities to just sit quietly for a while and read, or think, or do nothing at all. You’re getting old, he told himself. Old and soft. The thought would have been distasteful even a year ago; now, it was merely resigned. Of course it is. Submission to the inevitable — another characteristic of age.
Even the thrill of finding their goal had been muted. He’d tucked the urn beneath his leather jerkin with barely a second look, heedless of its unblemished condition. It was made of metal — pewter, Derrek thought — its mouth sealed with a cap. But if either the urn or its contents possessed the sorcery of the long-dead Valdori, it was subtle enough to be indiscernible. Just an antiquated trinket, no doubt. Pretty enough to look at, but nothing more. The find would doubtless delight a Quill historian somewhere, but before long it would disappear into the archives, making its final home among the countless other inconsequential relics of the past.
Cal tossed the wad of grass into the fire and fished a strip of dried meat from her pack. Derrek thought again of the schoolhouse’s hearty meals. Sighing, he settled himself beside Cal and poured himself a mug of Rawlen’s tea.
“Someone’s still trailing us,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Well, good for them,” Cal said, chewing noisily. “They can follow us right back to the schoolhouse for all I care.” She caught his expression and snorted. “Oh, come on. If they were going to show themselves, they would have done it by now.”
Derrek shrugged. “Maybe.” The past few nights had been clear and moonlit. Their tracker might have merely been biding his time, waiting for more opportune conditions before… what? He sipped his tea, grimacing at the astringent taste.
“Why would someone want to follow us all this way?” Rawlen sat huddled on the other side of the campfire as though it were the middle of winter. “I mean, why bother? They must know where we’re going.”
Derrek’s frown deepened. The boy had a point. It should have been obvious at the ruin that at least two of the party were Quill sorcerers. Now they were retracing their steps and had rejoined the trail that led back to the main road. Yet their tracker evidently still considered them worth following.
“I don’t know,” Derrek said. Not very reassuring. Try again. “But I doubt he would be foolish enough to cross the likes of us. And if he is, well, you’ve seen what Callidora can do. You’re safe enough.”
Rawlen turned his gaze back to the campfire, his chin resting on his knees.
“Tomorrow we return to the main road,” Derrek continued. “We’ll find an inn for the night. If our tracker wants to remain anonymous then, he’s going to find it a lot harder.”
Rawlen nodded slowly and Derrek looked away, trying to keep the concern from his face. Their stalker would be well aware of the road’s proximity. If he had malign intent, he would never have a better chance than tonight.
They finished their meal in silence. The campfire dwindled and the stars grew brighter, a thousand gemstones embedded in the sky, each lit from within. Rawlen’s eyes closed and he fell into a doze, his chin still propped up on his knees. Cal sat motionless, absorbed in her own thoughts. Derrek shifted restlessly, unable to find a position that didn’t cause some part of him to ache.
“Missing the comforts of home?” Cal said at last, the hint of a smile in her voice.
Derrek chuckled softly. “Aye, something like that,” he said, moving his legs to one side. After a moment he sighed and stretched them before him again. “Do you never grow weary of this endless search for ancient trinkets?”
He sensed Cal’s shrug. “Some are more than just trinkets. Better we find them than someone else.”
“That’s not what I meant. Don’t you ever want to… I don’t know, just stay in one place for a while?”
“And do what?” Cal gave her familiar snort. “Research? The very word sounds tedious. Teach? Might as well raise children.”
“Well, there’s that.” Derrek had no children that he knew of, and little patience with childish fancies. But then, teaching the blade or training sorcerers is hardly like instructing youngsters in their letters. Such things require a certain maturity —
Cal’s hand on his arm cut short his thoughts. “Company,” she said, staring at a low rise on the other side of the trail.
Derrek peered between the trees. Leaves whispered to one another, casting shadows that danced across the ground. He blinked, looked harder among the shifting patterns of darkness — and then he saw them.
Figures strode through the trees toward them, five at least, weapons in hand. They seemed to be all dressed in black, though the moonlight made it difficult to be sure. Derrek scrambled to his feet, drawing his own sword and holding it at his side, point downward.
“Stand, and state your business!” he shouted.
Rawlen started, blinking up at the others before twisting around to follow their gaze. He froze at the sight of the advancing men then scrambled to his feet and around the campfire to stand behind Derrek.
The figures continued their advance as though no-one had spoken, unhurried, their stride unbroken.
“Go and hide in the trees behind us,” Derrek said to Rawlen. There were six figures, he could now see. “Don’t do anything stupid. Callidora and I will take care of this.”
Rawlen stammered his assent and hurried away, his rapid footfalls quickly fading.
Cal crouched by the campfire, poking at the glowing embers with a half-burnt stick. Even as Derrek glanced down, a thin flame emerged, curling reluctantly upward, and Cal stood and nodded.
“I say again, stand or be considered hostile!” Derrek called, stepping away from the campfire and raising his sword.
The figures came on, heedless of his warning, neither hastening nor slowing their pace. Blades glinted in the moonlight.
So be it.
A column of flame ripped the night apart, erupting from the ground and enveloping one of the approaching figures. Derrek raised his hand, shielding his vision from the blazing light, and glanced across to the campfire. Cal stood as though transfixed, her hand stretched toward the fiery shaft and the screaming figure within. Her other hand reached for the campfire at her back, its small flame fluttering wildly as it bent toward her.
The screams ended abruptly. Cal lowered her hand and the blazing column vanished. Where the flame had been, only a blackened circle remained, with a dark, unmoving lump at its centre. The sickly scent of charred flesh hung in the darkness.
The remaining figures glanced at each other as though suddenly uncertain. Derrek drew breath to call out again, but before he could speak, one of the black-clad men shouted a command and the figures resumed their approach on the camp. Two swift paces, a third; then they broke into a run.
They arrived in a rush, two closing with Derrek, their assault pushing him back as he worked furiously to parry their attacks. Orange light flared from Cal’s position, highlighting the faces of his assailants: a scowling, pale-skinned Mellespene and a shorter man with hard eyes and a calculating frown. If either was shaken by the fate of their roasted companion it didn’t show on their faces.
Gods, this just keeps getting better.
Derrek blocked one thrust and dodged another, his foot slipping on the uneven ground. His opponents pressed the attack, forcing him back and back again. The man on the left aimed a blow high and Derrek raised his sword to block, not recognising the feint until a moment too late. He disengaged, twisting desperately away. Pain bloomed across his arm and shoulder and he staggered backward, narrowly avoiding another swing.
The Mellespene stumbled, momentarily blocking his companion, but Derrek was too slow to take advantage. He flexed his wounded arm, wincing at the rush of pain. The blow had been glancing, but the leather jerkin seemed to have done little to impede it. I need to finish this quickly. A finger of luck was all he needed. Dreamer, Weeper, and Gatherer, grant me victory. Deliver me from my foes, I pray.
The man on the right launched a fresh assault, his shorter companion stepping back and moving to circle around. Derrek countered the thrusts, stepping sideways to keep both men in sight, awaiting an opening. Cal’s orange light shifted and rippled, casting unsteady shadows across the clearing. Come on. Just one little mistake. Just one…
The taller man stumbled slightly and Derrek leapt forward, chopping at his neck and catching him off balance. The man raised his blade, somehow managing to deflect the blow, but as he hopped back his heel caught on a rock and he tumbled onto his arse. Derrek stepped in and stabbed the man through the chest. Surprise blossomed over the man’s face; then he sagged, his head lolling sideways like a broken puppet.
Derrek yanked his sword loose and spun to face the second man, but even as he turned he felt fire erupt in his belly. Blinking down, he saw a blade pull free, the steel covered with his own blood and fluids. Oh. That’s not good. He slumped to his knees, gaping at the shadowy clump of grass before him. The ground swayed and he toppled sideways, head hitting the dirt with a jarring thud.
He groaned, suddenly cold despite the mild evening, and braced for the deathblow. But as his vision cleared he saw his attacker already running across to assist his companions against Cal.
Three rings of flame enclosed Callidora and the campfire, one each at shoulders, waist, and knees. They spun and tilted, now shifting apart, now almost touching. The men prowled around her like balked dogs, snarling at the fiery barrier. A gap opened before one of them and he darted in, aiming a blow between the rings. But as his sword broached the barrier, a flaming tendril snapped out at his head and he reared away, cursing.
Derrek sucked in a mouthful of smoky air. Every breath was agony. It’s all down to you, Cal. The woman was a better firebinder than most Derrek had known, but even she couldn’t sustain a binding like this for long. Maybe if you kill them quickly, you can think of a way to save me. The men circled, cautious now, figures of black against the blazing rings. Please, hurry.
Another gap opened, inviting a blow — and this time the man stepped too close. Flame uncoiled, striking him in the head, engulfing his face. He shrieked and reeled away, stumbling sightlessly to his knees near Derrek and screaming like a gutted pig.
Yes! Wild hope surged through Derrek. But even as Cal sent another tendril just short of a swinging blade, the man who had stabbed Derrek stepped away from the others and drew something out from beneath his shirt.
A prickling sensation covered Derrek’s skin, and a whimper escaped him before he knew why. Anamnil. Gods, no. The man crouched by the campfire at Cal’s back, unfolding the object until it was about the size of a child’s blanket; then, with a flourish befitting a street-corner illusionist, he tossed it through the lower ring. Derrek watched in horror as it floated gently onto the campfire, smothering it. Cal’s vicious curse floated across the clearing. A moment later, her fiery defences winked out.
There was nothing he could do but watch. One moment Cal stood amid a blur of swords; the next, she had fallen without so much as a cry. Gods have mercy. Cal.
Who’s going to save me now?
A sudden scramble rose from beyond the clearing, then the sound of someone crashing away through the trees. The men spun around and darted away in pursuit. Rawlen, you idiot. Despair welled up beside the pain in Derrek’s stomach. Blundering through the forest with a pack of swordsmen at his back, the youth would be lucky to last a hundred paces.
The noise of the chase receded, leaving the clearing silent but for the low keening of the blinded attacker. Derrek wished the gods would strike him dumb. I’m dying, and you don’t hear me wailing about it. It occurred to him to wonder whether the gods had ever actually struck anyone dumb. The Gatherer will take me soon. Perhaps I’ll ask him. His thoughts were wandering, he realised distantly. Somehow, he could no longer summon the energy to care.
But something was gouging into his side. He dug his hand beneath his body, hissing at the pain, and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in a rag. Of course. The urn. This was what the men were seeking. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they had attacked for some other reason, and the urn, like everything else he carried, would soon be nothing more than loot. A trophy of a kill.
Rage swelled within him. To be brought down like a beast! To be killed not for who he was, nor even for what he was, but merely for what he carried. The contempt of it burned, worse even than the pain in his gut. The gods blind you all, you murdering bastards. And if the gods ignored this last request, as they had so many others in his life, there was still breath in him yet. He could still deny his killers this one thing.
If he had been uninjured, he might have used sorcery to drive the urn deep into the earth; but sorcery was beyond him now. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to his knees, his injured arm clasped over his belly to hold himself together. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he swayed, sucking down air as a cry rang out from the forest. Rawlen. Gods, I’m sorry.
Despair flared again and he fought it, pushing it away, using it to fan his rage. He straightened, raising himself to his full kneeling height; then, with a great, gasping breath, he hurled the urn into the trees before him. The force of his throw pitched him forward, sending him face-first into the rough clearing floor. He grunted at the impact, dirt filling his senses as the last of his strength left him.
He drifted, his thoughts breaking apart and reforming like clouds. He was badly hurt, he knew that. My arm. No, not my arm. My gut. Perhaps Cal could still save him if she came soon. But no, they had killed her already. And they had killed Rawlen, too; and now, at last, they had returned for him. He could hear them arguing somewhere nearby, but the words were muffled, indistinct, as though both they and he were underwater.
“This one’s still alive!” The voice was right next to him. Something pushed into his side and turned him over. Strange. That was where he had been stabbed, but there didn’t seem to be much pain any more.
Hands groped beneath his jerkin. A face drew near, and he felt himself being shaken. “Listen to me. Listen!”
Derrek tried to focus, but the face swam before him.
“We know you had an urn. Tell me where it is, and I’ll ease your passing.”
An immense satisfaction flooded through him. They were seeking the urn after all, and he had kept it from them! He wanted to smile, to laugh, but it seemed his lips had forgotten how. He gathered up saliva to spit in the face above him, but succeeded only in dribbling. Blood washed through his mouth, metallic and bitter.
The face disappeared, and Derrek heard the man move past the top of his head to where his arm lay outstretched. A moment later he felt the arm shift slightly and heard the crunch of breaking bones. My hand? No, probably my wrist. There was no pain at all now. Dying didn’t seem so bad after all.
The face returned. “I will ask only once more. Where is the urn?”
Derrek looked sideways, toward where he thought Cal had fallen. He didn’t feel so bad about the others now that he knew what dying was like. Maybe they had been allowed to wait for him, and the Gatherer would take all three of them together. He hoped so.
The argument began again, the voices distant, the words blurring and overlapping. The breeze caressed his face, whispering in his ears and sending a leaf skittering past his cheek. Sipping the mild night air, Derrek closed his eyes and waited to meet the god.
The boot stomped down and crushed his throat.
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