Vengeance Deferred

[ An excerpt from “The Dragon Heartstone,” book 2 of my Westfal series. ]

The road along the Silver River snaked with it, undulating over many ridgelines that radiated from the northern end of the Krador Mountains. Small, scattered patches of woodland lined the turns and twists, filling valleys and spilling along the shorelines.

Hiding in the dark underbrush, Riasean rubbed his arms, struggling to keep warm. Even as he ate berries and roots scavenged from nearby plants, his stomach complained. Throbbing in his legs remained constant from his unyielding pace. But he dare not slow, not even for a moment. Otherwise, he might lose sight of Faline. The tempo she kept amazed him as she moved east along the road toward some unknown destination. He had hoped she might slow or even stop to rest, but he had not been so lucky.

He licked his lips to keep them moist, staving off thirst until he could dart to the river and drink his fill. While his body cried out, he focused on his goal–to bury a knife into Faline in the same savage way she had done to Larah.

Yet, when Faline did stop at noon, he enjoyed the respite, fighting off the desire to race forward to finish the job. As he caught his breath, his attention stayed on his blonde-haired, black-robed quarry.

* * *

Faline stood, eyes closed, focusing her mind eastward. Her body screamed in pain, despite the simple Druidic charms and spells she had used to mask the effort. Despite the discomfort, there remained the need to locate the Shatain, the shadow warriors bound to her. Using black magic, this task would have been simple. But that was no longer an option. She tried to compensate, using skills not tapped in centuries. Taking a deep breath, she pushed her consciousness beyond the limitations of her ancient Druidic training. Yet, once again, the effort came up empty. A sigh escaped as exhaustion and despair poured in. Maybe tomorrow. For now, she must continue moving along this path, marshal the patience required to cross northern Bretagne, and close the distance with the Shatain.

Opening her eyes, she took in her surroundings and let the aesthetics wash over her. Autumn colors graced the trees, and brilliant sunlight streamed through the branches as they drifted in the still-warm afternoon breezes. A faint memory of a similar sojourn floated by in another time and place. What had it been called? Her mind sifted through almost a millennium of memories before returning to the correct phrase: destiny quest. This journey was much like that one, where she had to leave the sanctuary of Avalir for a year. Like then, she traveled alone, with only her Druidic training to sustain her.

She had gained—and lost—much since then. Most notably, her dark arts ability had been eliminated by the healing received from the Grail of Culloden. Still, she had survived. With a final glance at the beauty surrounding her, she dismissed it. Such things served no purpose, least of all hers. Once more, she stepped upon the path.

She kept trying to reach the Shatain during brief pauses until the sun sank beneath the far distant Black Shadow Mountains and plunged the area into darkness. To continue risked losing the trail. Likewise, she could no longer ignore her physical need for rest. To her left, a ridge jutted out into the river. Near the top, a clearly defined outcrop revealed a cave opening that might provide shelter.

She slipped off the road and picked her way up the stony slope of the ridge. As the darkness deepened, she grasped at hand holds in the grayish moss-covered rocks and slipped a few times as she sought to gain a foothold. With sweat slipping off her forehead and her breath rising in clouds in the cooling night air, she finally arrived at the cave opening. By now, the surrounding darkness was so thick she could not see into the cave. She grabbed a stray rock and muttered, “illustras [Light].”

The rock’s surface erupted in light, and holding it aloft, she probed the entrance. With a sigh of relief, it proved to be empty and full of smooth rock crevasses, any of which she could comfortably settle into. Satisfied, she turned to the cave mouth and, with a sweep of her arm, charmed it with a simple warning spell. Finding a secluded spot in the wall, she tucked herself into it and pulled her cloak around her. With a final gesture, she raised the rock and whispered, “extinguere [Extinguish].”

The light flared out, and the cave fell into darkness. The cave walls dully reflected the moonlight, which also lingered on the tendrils of fog rising from the river waters below. The sound of rushing water beat incessantly against her ears, drowning the doubts and concerns in her mind. Sleep soon followed.

* * *

As Riasean slipped up the slope toward the cave opening, his eyes stayed focused on the crest. His experience and training allowed his hands and feet to easily find their way into gaps in the surrounding surfaces. The nearly cloudless night, with some ambient moonlight, was a perfect killing moon. These ideal circumstances allowed him to ignore the nagging voice of reason, cautioning against pursuing personal vendettas. Killing was simply a means to an end, a bag of gold to support a precarious existence. There is no gold this time, but finishing this viper would be satisfying. But then what?

While he could ignore his doubts, such was not the case for the rising fog. The streamers of mist floated past his eyes, obscuring the crest until his line of sight extended only a few feet. Clambering over the last moss-covered rocks, he emerged outside the cave. Pulling his obsidian knife, he peered inside. His half-Elvish eyes swept the surroundings and quickly revealed the coiled-up form of the she-witch. Gripping the hilt tighter, he stepped into the cave entrance. In an instant, the world disappeared into a grayish haze of impenetrable mist.

His sense of awareness tingled; everything had changed drastically. He stood perfectly still, knife in his cocked arm, scanning the mist. The rushing water sound had disappeared, as had nearly every physical feature he had to orient himself. What was going on?

“Riasean,” a voice echoed out of the darkness. “I mean you no harm.”

He swiveled toward the sound, knife at the ready. “Who is this?” he hissed.

A form seemingly coalesced out of the fog, “I am Lenor.” The figure approached him, appearing as a woman in dark blue clothing, her long brown hair pulled back into a braid that ran down to her hips. Piercing silver, cat-like eyes studied him, even as he backed into a protective crouch.

His mind churned. This must be a Caretaker, one of those powerful but unpredictable immortal spirits. He’d encountered one before–and it had saved his life–but only after binding his life thread to Larah’s.

“What do you want from me? Why do you stand between me and my prey?”

Lenor’s eyes sparkled in the moonlight. “You will not harm her, for that is not your destiny. I am giving you a new task.”

Riasean tensed. “I do not care what you intend; you will not stop me from ending the life of the she-witch.” He tightened the grip on the knife and stepped toward the Caretaker.

She laughed in a high, cold, piercing tone that set his nerves tingling. “Do you really think you have a choice in this matter,” she said, then snapped her fingers. The fog disappeared, and the curled-up form of Faline lay at his feet. “Do what you want, and see what happens. But be forewarned. It will not be what you expect.”

He looked down at the woman, her youthful face framed by stray curls of blond hair. Her chest rose and fell, even as he stood over her with a blade. It would be easy to clamp a hand over Faline’s mouth and slash her unprotected throat.

But his instincts knew better. Nothing was easy, even if it looked that way. Lenor continued to study him like a cat watching its prey. She was playing with him. “Why do you protect this viper? She deserves no pity, least of all from the likes of you.”

“Who are you to make such a judgment? How many life threads have you snipped before their time? Did none of them deserve compassion or pity?” The Caretaker flashed a close-lipped smile. “Our ways are simply beyond your understanding. Everyone has a purpose and a plan for their life, and whether that aligns with what mortals want, it matters not.”

Lenor’s words stung, even as he acknowledged their truth. He dropped his knife arm to his side. “What do you want me to do, and why should I?”

“You are to retrieve the Dragon Heartstone and give it to The Watcher–the Brin Shar, and if you do this, then what was lost will be returned to you.”

Lost? What was this fiend talking about? Riasean’s chest tightened. Like a bolt of lightning, the context of what she referred to raced to the front of his mind. But he immediately rejected it. “Larah? She is better off without me and has others to look out for her. Besides, why should I want to retrieve this artifact for you?”

“You must find the Dragon Heartstone, or Larah will die,” Lenor stated without amplification.

Riasean gritted his teeth. “Is this another of your entrapments? Like when you bound my life to Larah’s to help her retrieve the Grail?”

“No. What I said is merely a statement of fact. If you wish to ignore this, then you know the consequences.”

Riasean let the warning wash over him before looking again at Faline’s sleeping form. “When I do this, will I be able to kill this wretch?”

Lenor smiled in reply.

He sighed and sheathed his knife. “Very well then, what must I do?”

* * *

An hour later, guided by dim moonlight, Riasean rode a horse along the road, hastening to where it forked. The east road continued across the northern extremes of Bretagne, and the south road meandered through the Shadowlands, a high plateau of striated rock outcroppings, before emptying out onto the broad flatlands leading into the heart of Bretagne. So once again, a Caretaker had pulled strings, forcing him to perform like a marionette. Still, she did provide him with everything he asked for. His fingers ran through the horse’s mane as he peered ahead. No longer focused on pursuing Faline, his mind touched on his memories of Larah, and a dull pain throbbed in his chest. Struggling to not linger on what could have been, he focused on the darkened trail. He hoped the task before him would fill the emptiness inside.

* * *

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