Author Topic: The Daughter of Pernus, by JOHN-WHITEHOUSE,  (Read 1185 times)

Offline DannicaAngel

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The Daughter of Pernus, by JOHN-WHITEHOUSE,
« on: April 23, 2010, 09:04:15 PM »
Intro: Two companions are caught up in a deadly web of intrigue, involving a captive princess and a scheming sorceress

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The cell was a place of shadows, the hard light of a full moon etching the window bars. Unable to sleep, Lokan peered through them, his gaze resting on the scaffold standing in the gloomy courtyard. Another wave of despair washed over him. Soon it would be his turn for the gallows.
Yet again, he cursed himself for being such a fool. Orphaned in his teens, the lure of easy money had drawn him to the criminal underworld, and for the past few years he’d run various rackets for a crime lord called Mikalem. With the help of Jareel - a fellow thief and smuggler - he’d tried to set up a deal involving a shipment of contraband, without Mikalem’s knowledge, to avoid paying him a share of the profits. However, the wily old dog had discovered his plan. Now Jareel was dead, and Lokan was imprisoned on a trumped-up murder charge - both Mikalem’s doing - while the crime boss was in the clear, as usual.
In desperation, Lokan paced the floor, torturing his mind for some means of escape. In his early twenties, he was tall and broad-shouldered, with a powerful muscular frame. An unruly mass of dark curls topped his handsome features.
Then a thought occurred to him. In the next cell was a girl, who the Priests of the Temple had found guilty of witchcraft, and who was also due to hang. Of course! That was the solution. The girl knew magic. If he could free her, she could use her powers to help the two of them break out - put a spell on the guards, or something.
Even as Lokan pondered this, unease stirred within him. Like most people, he had a deep-rooted suspicion of witchcraft and sorcery. Under the circumstances, however, there was no alternative.
He knew that Cruddas, the jailer, would be making his rounds soon. There was no time to lose.
Sitting on the hard pallet-bed, Lokan tugged at the heel of his right boot, the bottom coming away to reveal a small secret compartment. From this he took a metal disc, the width of a medium-sized coin, whose edges had been sharpened. Fitting the heel back together, he lay back and waited in tense silence.
Presently, he heard the clump of booted feet, accompanied by the jangle of keys. With a silent prayer to Tadalus, patron god of thieves, he rose and crossed to the cell door. Peering through the barred hatch set high into it, he saw Cruddas making his way along the dimly-lit passage. The jailer peered into each of the cells, checking on the occupants. As he drew near, Lokan called to him. ‘Hey, I’m hungry. How about some food? And some wine to wash it down.’
The jailer threw him a contemptuous sneer. In his early forties, he had bald, fleshy features and a large powerful frame now running to fat.
‘I can pay for it. With gold.’
That got his attention. Halting before Lokan’s cell, he peered through the hatch. Lokan pointed to his tunic. ‘In here. There’s a bag of coins.’
The jailer scrutinised him for a moment, trying to decide whether this was some sort of trick. Then he gave a shrug. ‘Alright, stand back from the door.’
Lokan did as he was told. There was a rasp of steel as Cruddas drew his sword, followed by a dull clunk as he unlocked the cell. The door creaked open and he stepped through. He held out his free hand. ‘Come on, then. Hand it over.’
With a sudden movement, Lokan flung the metal disc at the man’s face, the sharpened edge slicing open his cheek. Startled, Cruddas staggered back, and in that moment Lokan sprang at him. He dashed the sword from his grasp, the weapon clattering to the floor, and the two men grappled. As they collided with the wall, Cruddas struck Lokan on the temple with the edge of his fist, a blow which sent him crashing to the floor. With an angry snarl, the jailer unhooked the cudgel which hung from his belt, and raised it in readiness to strike.
Gripped by blind unreasoning panic, Lokan snatched up the sword and plunged it into the man’s chest. Cruddas stiffened, features frozen in shock and horror. He gave a rasping gurgle. Blood seeped from his mouth. As Lokan released his grip on the weapon, the jailer slumped to the floor, a red stain blossoming over his grubby tunic.
Lokan stared at the body, numb with the horrid realisation of what he’d done. His intention had been to overpower Cruddas, render him unconscious, not this.
Then his instinct for self-preservation took over. Stumbling into the corridor, he grabbed the keys and stood before the girl’s cell. He began trying each of the keys in the lock until, at the fifth attempt, he found the correct one. Pushing open the door, he charged into the cell.
The girl, who’d been wakened by the noise, was sitting in the far corner, chained to the wall by her wrists and ankles. A wash of moonlight streamed through the barred window, and by its vague radiance Lokan saw she was aged around sixteen. She was also very pretty, her soft oval features framed by a thick mane of chestnut brown hair, which fell beyond her shoulders in waves. Her blouse and skirt were ragged and soiled, while her sole adornment was a gold ring on her right hand.
‘We’re getting out of here,’ Lokan told her. ‘You’ll need to use your magic, however.’
The girl spoke. ‘I’m not a witch. The things they accused me of, they’re all lies.’
Lokan was silent a moment, while the import of this sunk in. Then he groaned. Of course – he should have known. During their current purge on witchcraft, the priests were often convicting people on little more than rumour and hearsay. Who knew how many innocents had been sent to their deaths? However, he reasoned that all may not be lost. Perhaps there was a way out through the sewers, if he could gain access to them.
‘I’d take you with me,’ he told the girl. ‘But I’ve just killed the jailer. If we’re caught, the guards will think we were in it together, and I dread to think what they’d do to you. Before they hang you, that is.’
‘You’ve killed the jailer!’ The girl’s face widened and some sort of realisation seemed to come over her. ‘Set me free,’ she told Lokan. ‘Don’t argue, just do it.’
With a shrug, Lokan grabbed the keys and unlocked her manacles. The girl rubbed the skin where the metal had chafed. ‘Thanks. My name’s Breiselda, by the way.’
Lokan introduced himself. ‘Why did they chain you?’
‘They do it to anyone suspected of witchcraft,’ she told him, rising to her feet. ‘It’s a precaution. Iron neutralises sorcerous powers, you see.’
Snatching up the keys, Breiselda ran out of the cell and along the corridor. Lokan hurried after her. At the end of the passage, she halted before a heavy wooden door. Unlocking it, she pulled it open a fraction, admitting a cool breath of night air.
‘Wait here,’ she said, and before Lokan could object she darted through, vanishing into the gloom. Lokan cursed under his breath. What was she playing at? What if the guards were to spot her? Perhaps her intention was to betray him, try to win herself a pardon. Lokan’s mind whirled. He felt his stomach churning. Then Breiselda reappeared. ‘It’s alright, they’re asleep. Come on.’
Warily, Lokan followed her across the courtyard. As they came to the guardhouse, he peered through the open door. By the sullen glow of the lantern which illumined the small hut, he saw the three men inside were sprawled on chairs, their heads tilted forward. A couple were snoring. Thankful for such good fortune, Lokan whispered a ‘thank you’ to Tadalus.
Across the entrance to the jail stood a pair of large wooden gates, into which a smaller gate had been set to allow easy access for those on foot. Unlocking it, Lokan and Breiselda stepped into a deserted street.
‘Where to now?’ asked Breiselda.
Lokan turned to her. ‘I didn’t plan on taking you along.’
‘But I’ve nowhere to go,’ said Breiselda. ‘My parents are dead and I’ve no family here.’ Grabbing him by the arm, she fixed him with an imploring stare. ‘Please, take me with you.’
Lokan gave a sigh, and nodded. He realised he couldn’t just abandon her. Telling her to follow him, he set off along the street, turning into a narrow passage which ran alongside a tavern. He led Breiselda through a warren of stinking alleys and dingy side streets, halting at length outside the forge where he lodged, in return for doing occasional work for the blacksmith. The moon shed a ghostly radiance on the low building, at the side of which stood a barn.
‘Wait here,’ said Lokan. ‘I won’t be long.’
Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked the barn and stepped inside. He used flint and steel to light a lamp which hung by the door, and climbed a ladder into the loft where he slept. Prising up a floorboard, he extracted a small bag of coins from its hiding place. Then he buckled on his sword, which he kept in a worn leather scabbard.
Climbing back down, he walked along the line of stalls. At present, only one was occupied. The horse, a newly-shod stallion with a shining black coat, belonged to a wealthy merchant. Lokan set about saddling and bridling it. He would have felt unease at stealing a poor man’s horse, but had few qualms in this case, especially under the circumstances.
Leading the horse from the barn, he swung into the saddle, Breiselda climbing on behind. Lokan urged the animal into a trot, and they proceeded along a narrow lane, emerging onto a wide thoroughfare leading to the city’s northern wall. Unchallenged by the sleepy watch, the companions rode to the nearest gate, where a lone guardsman (his companions were drunk in the guardhouse) shouted for them to halt.
Reining in, Lokan held up his hand against the moonlight, and the soldier caught the gleam of gold. The man understood the offer of a bribe – a welcome addition to his meagre pay - and, with a grunt, he swung open the gate. As the companions rode through, Lokan cast a handful of coins to the soldier, which fell at his feet in a clinking shower. In greedy haste, the man stooped to retrieve them, as Lokan and Breiselda fled into the night.
Under the moon’s cold gaze, they rode away from Madragar, the largest sea port on Thuria’s southern coast, and were soon crossing swathes of moorland. A rising wind breathed over the gloomy wastes, causing the long grasses to seethe and ripple like the sea.
‘Where shall we go?’ asked Breiselda, hair streaming behind her like a pennant.
‘It would be best to leave Thuria altogether,’ said Lokan. ‘Get away from the temple’s jurisdiction.’
‘How about Sardukia? An aunt and uncle of mine live there.’
Lokan murmured his agreement. ‘How come they thought you were a witch?’ he asked.
‘After my parents died, a group of travellers took me in,’ Breiselda explained. ‘I and another girl were both in love with the same boy. She became insanely jealous. It was she who spread the rumours about me.’ She gave Lokan a squeeze. ‘You’ve saved my life. At first, I thought it was a trap, the kind the priests set up. I didn’t want to condemn myself by agreeing to escape, not while there was still a chance of reprieve. But when I heard you’d killed the jailer, I knew you must be genuine.’
At the mention of this, a feeling of bitter regret swept over Lokan. He’d killed men before, but each time they’d sought to do the same to him. Cruddas had only been doing his job. All of a sudden, freedom didn’t taste so sweet.

****

They were being followed, of that Lokan had no doubt. The crunching footfalls were too measured, too regular, to belong to a deer or other such creature. Someone was stalking them through the forest.
The companions had ridden northward, keeping away from towns and villages owing to the threat of bounty hunters, and had crossed the border into the land of Brythir, which consisted of several small kingdoms. The horse had gone lame earlier that morning, and they’d entered the forest on foot. Now the sun was at its zenith, showering golden light through the branches.
Lokan halted, straining to listen. Leaves rustled in the breeze, a quick flap of wings came from nearby. Then he heard the dry crackle once again, and now the sound seemed to come from more than one direction.
Lokan gripped the hilt of his sword. Although he could wield it with a fair degree of skill, the thought of facing two - or more - adversaries at once made his stomach tighten. He was concerned for Breiselda also, lest any harm should befall her. Glancing in her direction, he saw she, too, was casting anxious glances about. She was also twisting her ring, a nervous habit she had.
As they came to a clearing, Lokan drew his sword, telling Breiselda to get behind him. The companions stood facing the trees as the footfalls grew louder. There was a rustling among the branches. Then two figures emerged.
The companions froze in horror. The creatures were like something out of a wild nightmare. Man-like, they were tall and rangy, with long sinewy limbs, their hands and feet terminating in claw-like talons. Their bodies were covered in grey fur, and their faces were bestial, an ape-like snout set between yellow eyes and mouths lined with sharp teeth.
As the creatures advanced, more began to break from cover. Then, from the trees to the right of the clearing, the flat snap of bows sounded and two of the creatures fell to the ground. Both had been struck by white-fledged arrows, one through the neck, the other in the chest. More shafts hissed through the air, finding their targets with deadly accuracy, and within moments a half dozen more of the beasts lay dead, or dying. With howls of alarm, the rest fled back through the trees.
Two men stepped into the clearing. They wore tough, practical garments: knee-length boots, heavy woollen trousers, leather jerkins over horsehair tunics. As well as bows, they were armed with swords and daggers which were sheathed at their waists. Arrow bags were slung over their shoulders.
Lokan was about to offer his thanks, but one of the men spoke first. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ He was of medium height and strong build, and looked to be in his late twenties. A small dark beard adorned his handsome features.
Lokan introduced himself and Breiselda. Avoiding any mention of their escape from prison, he explained the reason for their journey.
Satisfied, the man relaxed a little. ‘I am Tormas, Prince and rightful heir to the throne of Naashem.’ He gestured toward his companion. ‘This is Jarek, former Captain of the Royal Guard.’ In his mid-thirties, he was tall and lean, his scarred features peppered by a growth of stubble.
Lokan pointed to the bodies lying on the ground. ‘What are those creatures?’
‘They are known to our people as Grazuki,’ said Tormas. ‘Their race has all but vanished from the world, although pockets of them still survive, here and in some northern lands.’
Breiselda spoke. ‘You said you were from Naashem. That’s a city state, isn’t it? My parents and I passed through there once, when we were part of a travelling fayre. Is it far? Only we need food and rest.’
Tormas gave a rueful sigh. ‘I only wish I could take you to the Palace. Alas, the only hospitality I can offer is a cave, nearby. Our hunting expedition has yielded no success, but you are welcome to share what food we have. And I will tell you the fate that has befallen the city.’
The Prince led the way through the forest to the banks of a stream. Through the trees, the spires and towers of Naashem could now be glimpsed. Horses and pack mules grazed close to the cave, which was larger than the mouth indicated. As the others seated themselves, Jarek moved to the rear, where the saddlebags were stored. Reaching into one, he took out some strips of jerked beef and handed them round.
As they ate, Tormas told how his father - King Pernius - had been deposed as ruler some months earlier by the Prince’s cousin, Saddara, who was a mistress of dark sorcery.
‘It’s a pity the Temple has no influence here,’ Breiselda remarked wryly. ‘I’d like to see the priests get their hands on her.’
With the help of a bandit leader named Roganar, Saddara had gathered an army of mercenaries who’d stormed the city in a surprise attack. Taken unawares, the Kings’ forces had been overwhelmed.
Jarek spat. ‘Mercenaries! Pah! Outlaws and cut-throats, most of them. They had help, traitors inside the city who slew the guards and opened the gates. I swear, if I ever find out who they are ...’
Tormas quietened him. He told how he and his father had managed to flee, along with a tiny retinue of loyal servants, including Jarek. His sister - Princess Lyssia - had been captured, however. The King and his followers had journeyed to the land of Turshia, settling in the capital, Kodan.
Then, a month ago, a wandering merchant caravan had brought them a letter from Lyssia. She told how she was being held in a villa, not far from the Great Temple, guarded by only two men. She added that she’d written at the urging of a servant girl, who’d smuggled the letter out of the city.
Together, Tormas and his father had formed a plan to rescue the Princess.
‘Jarek and I intend to enter the city disguised as peasants, wearing long hooded cloaks. We’ll wait until nightfall, then overpower the men guarding Lyssia. With any luck, they’ll be half drunk, or dozing. With my sister disguised also, we’ll make our way to the Temple. A secret tunnel leads from there out of the city. That’s our means of escape.’
When they’d finished eating, Breiselda remarked that she needed some air and, rising to her feet, she ducked out of the cave. A moment later she called to the others, and there was a note of alarm in her voice.
Scrambling from the cave, the men saw Breiselda pointing to a large cloud of bluish-grey mist which was moving across the sky. Coming from the direction of the city, it was heading toward the companions at considerable speed.
‘It’s Saddara’s doing, I’ll be bound,’ said Tormas, his face grim. ‘We’d better get out of here.’
As he and Jarek began saddling the horses, Lokan and Breiselda went back into the cave to retrieve the saddlebags. When they emerged, they saw the cloud was now directly above them, where it had halted. It hovered there for a moment. Then, like a bird swooping on prey, it descended, enveloping the four companions, along with the animals.
Lokan found himself in a blue-grey cocoon. Around him, the mist swirled and writhed like a living thing, and he noticed a faint, sweetly acrid scent - like smoky incense – now hung on the air. As he groped forward, stumbling over the uneven ground, his vision began to swim in and out of focus. Dizziness flooded over him, and he felt weak and nauseous. Letting go of the saddlebag he was carrying, he dropped heavily to his knees.
Then his world dissolved into blackness.

****

Lokan swam into consciousness to find he was lying on damp straw. Sitting up, he peered about. He and Breiselda were inside a prison cell, two sides of which were solid rock. To their left was an adjacent cell - occupied by Tormas and Jarek - which mirrored their own, the two separated by bars running from floor to ceiling. In front of them stood the cell door, similarly constructed of full-length bars. A narrow passage ran in front of the cells, lit by burning torches, whose glow provided the sole alleviation to the gloom.
‘Where are we?’ Lokan asked.
It was Tormas who answered. ‘Inside the Temple. I recognise this as one of the dungeons.’
There was a sound of footsteps, and a man and woman appeared in the entrance to the passage. The woman - who looked to be in her mid-thirties - was tall and slender, her finely-sculpted features framed by a mass of dark curls which foamed down her back. She wore a long turquoise robe tied at the waist by a golden braid, and a tasteful adornment of jewellery. There was no denying she was beautiful. Yet it was a cold, hard sort of beauty, like a summer flower clothed with autumn frost, or the crisp elegance of a fresh snowfall, and her dark eyes, though full of pride and intelligence, gleamed with hidden menace.
Tormas sprang to his feet. ‘Saddara! I suppose you’ve come to gloat. But how did you know we were coming?’
‘You forget my skills in the magic arts, cousin.’ She spoke from a wide sensuous mouth, and her voice was sickly-sweet, like poisoned honey. ‘I have placed warding spells around the city. When you arrived at the stream you disturbed one, and I was alerted.’
She gestured toward her companion. Around the same age, he was tall and muscular, with rugged features and fair hair, which was long and shaggy, like a wolf.
‘Let me introduce you. You’ve heard of the famous Roganar, although I don’t believe you’ve actually met. Well, this is he. Thanks to him, I now have what is rightfully mine.’
‘Oh, Saddara, you never could accept it. The people didn’t want you as Queen. My father’s rule has been wise and tolerant. Naashem has grown and prospered under it.’
Saddara moved to stand in front of the cell, facing the Prince. ‘A pity the throne was bought with the blood of my father.’ Her voice trembled with an anger she could barely contain. ‘I know what happened in the battle with the Zoramian forces, how Pernius hired an assassin to slay his brother, making it appear he’d been killed by the enemy. It was Jamilla who told me. Using ancient arts, she divined the truth of the matter.’
‘And you believe that old crone? She’s lying to you, Saddara. She’s using you for her own ends.’
Saddara ignored him. ‘My spies in Kodan tell me Pernius has been busy these past months, forming alliances, trying to raise an army against me. How sad that his schemes will avail him naught. As he will discover tonight.’
The Prince’s face darkened. ‘What do you mean?’
Saddara gave him a look which could almost have been pity. ‘Oh, my dear cousin, don’t you see? The whole thing was a trap. The servant girl, the one who smuggled out the letter – she was in my employ. I knew you’d try to recue your sister sooner or later, it was simply a matter of waiting.
‘The assassin is in place, cousin. When I inform him that you are safely in my hands, he will move against Pernius. When you and your sister are also taken care of, there will be no-one left to challenge me. I failed before because I was young and foolish. I shall not make the same mistakes again.’
Tormas stared at her with incredulity. Then he uttered an inhuman cry. ‘You filthy, treacherous witch!’ he screamed. ‘May you burn in a thousand hells for this.’ He gripped the bars and shook them with uncontrollable fury. He howled like an animal.
Breiselda spoke. ‘What are you going to do with us?’
‘I intend to sacrifice you all to Mytak, girl, in return for his continued blessings on the city. Along with the Princess Lyssia, of course, who is being prepared for the ritual as we speak. In the meantime, I will see that you’re fed and watered. After all, I’m not a barbarian.’ She beckoned to Roganar, and the two of them strode out of the dungeon.
Lokan slumped against a wall, an icy wave of dread surging over him. He felt a cold knot in his stomach and his throat tightened. Closing his eyes, he began praying to Tadalus, his pleadings and devotions more fervent than ever.

****

Lokan was wakened from a fitful doze by the clump of leather on stone. Glancing about, he saw the others were awake also, the Prince’s expression one of haunted despair.
A man - one of the Temple guards - came into the dungeon. He wore garments of dyed black leather, to which strips of gold-plated metal had been fixed, and a peaked golden helm. A long, curved sword hung from his waist. He carried a tray, laden with bowls containing stale bread and water.
Rising to her feet, Breiselda moved to the cell door. Lokan noticed she was fidgeting with her ring. She spoke to the guard. ‘I don’t want to be sacrificed.’ Her voice was small and pleading. ‘Can you do anything to help me?’
The man sneered. ‘What’s it worth?’
Breiselda flashed him a seductive smile. ‘Come here and I’ll tell you.’
The guard stepped over to the cell, and Breiselda whispered something only the two of them could hear. The man gave a lustful grin. Putting down the tray, he proceeded to unlock the door. Breiselda stepped out, the guard locking the cell again behind her.
Facing him, Breiselda flung her arms around his neck and clamped her mouth over his. A moment later, the guard pulled away. He rubbed the nape of his neck. Then he grinned. ‘You’ve got sharp nails, girl.’
The two of them continued kissing. Then the guard pulled away again, and this time he was swaying on his feet. He staggered a few steps. Then he collapsed to the floor.
Lokan sprang to his feet, followed by Tormas and Jarek.
‘How did you manage that?’ asked the Prince.
Breiselda showed him the ring, from which a tiny spike now protruded. ‘It’s coated with a fast-acting poison. My parents gave it to me for my protection.’ Grabbing the keys, she unlocked the cell.
‘That was a neat ruse,’ Lokan told her, as she freed him.
‘I knew he’d fall for it,’ said Breiselda. ‘Men are such fools.’ She paused and grinned. ‘Present company excepted, of course.’
Tormas grabbed the sword belonging to the guard. ‘We must try to rescue my sister,’ and he hurried from the dungeon.
The others followed him up a narrow winding stair, emerging into a long corridor. The companions proceeded along it, and were almost at the end when a guard appeared from around the corner, coming face to face with them. As he froze in astonishment, Jarek sprang forward and grappled with the man. He was hard to hold as a snake, and kept groping for his sword, but as the two of them crashed into the wall, Jarek smashed his opponent’s head savagely against it. The guard went limp and slumped to the floor, Jarek grabbing his sword.
‘Pray we’re not too late,’ said the Prince, and he led the way deeper into the Temple.
Presently, he halted before an arched portal. Peering warily through, the companions saw a large circular chamber illumined by a smoky glow, which was the shrine of Mytak. Over the far side stood a ten foot high statue of the deity, a vulture-headed figure with a lizard-like body and multiple wings and arms. Beside this was an altar draped with a white cloth, on which the ceremonial dagger lay. Saddara was there, along with Roganar and two acolytes, shaven-headed young men wearing long, scarlet robes. The latter flanked the Princess, who’d been dressed in a long, pale garment for the occasion. Her flowing red hair was confined by a narrow golden band around her temples, and her pretty features were contorted with weeping.
Facing the wall, Saddara muttered a brief spell. A section of the stonework began to glow, and the image of a man appeared. Saddara spoke to him.
‘The Prince is safely under lock and key. Are you ready to proceed?’
The man nodded. ‘Tonight, when Pernius retires to his chamber, I will strike. Without his son and the Captain to guard him, my task will be much easier.’
‘Excellent. Do not fail me.’
Tormas snarled. The skin of his face was stretched taut with hate, and his eyes blazed with vengeful fire. Telling Lokan and Breiselda to keep lookout, he signalled to Jarek, and the two men strode into the chamber. As the occupants froze in astonishment, Jarek sprang toward the acolytes. Yelling with fear, they ran for the doorway on the far side, as Roganar’s sword hissed from its scabbard. With a cry, Jarek leaped to meet him, and the clashing clangour of steel rang throughout the chamber as the adversaries engaged in mortal combat.
Tormas, meanwhile, was advancing toward Saddara, his rage a living thing. Backing against the altar, Saddara pointed to him and began to bark out an incantation. Then she froze and stiffened. Eyes glazing, she slumped forward, the ceremonial dagger embedded in her back.
As Jarek and Roganar continued hacking and slashing for all their worth, Lyssia grabbed a burning torch from its bracket and circled around the two men. With a sudden movement, she thrust the firebrand into Roganar’s face. Screaming in agony, he dropped his sword, the weapon clattering to the floor. A moment later, Jarek’s blade plunged into his chest.
Over by the altar, Tormas stood next to Saddara’s body and gazed at the hilt of the dagger, around which blood was flowering over the turquoise robe.
‘What happened?’ he asked, visibly stunned.
‘It was Tadalus!’ cried Lokan. ‘He made it happen. He’s watching over us, you see.’ He mouthed a prayer of thanks.
‘It’s just as well,’ Breiselda told the Prince. ‘That spell would have withered you.’
Tormas turned to her. ‘How would you know?’
Breiselda hesitated before speaking. ‘Well, something like that.’
Tormas poked the body with the toe of his boot, as the others joined him.
‘I would have preferred her death to have been by my own hand,’ said the Prince. ‘But no matter. The world is gainer for her passing.’
The sound of approaching voices made them start.
‘The entrance to the tunnel is close by,’ said Tormas, and sprinted for the far doorway. With the others hard on his heels, he led the way along a corridor lined with recessed alcoves, which served as shrines to minor deities. At the end of the passage, he stepped into one of the alcoves and began pressing his hands against the rear wall. ‘One of the stones is loose,’ he told the others. ‘If I can just locate it ...’
Then Lyssia gave a shout. Running toward them along the corridor were a half dozen temple guards. All had their weapons drawn.
The companions froze. Then, half way along the passage, the two leading men were flung backward, as if struck by some giant, invisible hand. Pushing past them, their comrades met the same fate. Amid shouts of astonishment, the men ran forward again, but were unable to advance past a particular spot. It was evident some mysterious barrier had sprung up, blocking the corridor.
Glancing at Breiselda, Lokan saw she was standing with arms stretched out before her, muttering a strange incantation. As the others gaped, his eyes narrowed in realisation.
He noticed Breiseldas’ features contorting, as if she were straining with some great effort, and she sank to her knees, although she continued chanting. Lokan yelled to Tormas, urging him to hurry. Turning back to the wall, the Prince resumed his search for the elusive stone.
Tense moments passed. Then, with a grinding sound, the whole of the wall swung inward. The Prince ushered Jarek and Lyssia into the gaping blackness. Then he called to Lokan and Breiselda.
With increasing anger and frustration, the guards continued to pound at the invisible barrier, while the effort to maintain it was proving almost too much for Breiselda. Lokan grabbed her by the arm. ‘Come on,’ he yelled. Ceasing her chanting, Breiselda scrambled to her feet, and she and Lokan sprinted for the tunnel.
With the spell now broken, the guards renewed their charge along the passage. Grabbing a torch from its bracket, Tormas stepped into the blackness and his groping hand found a lever, which he threw. As the stonework ground back into place, angry yells and curses erupted from the guards. Then the companions were alone in silent darkness.
Lokan turned to Breiselda. ‘So, you are a witch, after all.’
Breiselda nodded. ‘The girl didn’t realise it when she spread the rumours but, yes, I have the Power.’
‘In the shrine, the dagger – that was your doing, wasn’t it?’
‘I whispered the spell so you wouldn’t hear me,’ said Breiselda. ‘I also used my magic during our escape from jail. Remember the guards at the gatehouse? I put a sleeping spell on them.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I had to be completely sure I could trust you, Lokan. You might have been tempted to betray me to the Temple for a reward. Had you succeeded in binding me in iron, I would have been helpless.
‘I wanted to reveal my powers when we were in the dungeon, but I thought about those two.’ She gestured toward Tormas and Jarek. ‘When they spoke about Saddara, their fear and suspicion of sorcery was all too apparent. I was afraid they would think I was in league with her, or something.’
She sighed. ‘It’s sad. Most of us who have the Power only wish to use our gifts to heal, and do good. Only a few use the Power for evil, but that taints us all.’
‘What do you think will happen, now Saddara and Roganar are dead?’ Lokan asked the Prince, as the companions set off along the tunnel.
Tormas shrugged. ‘Roganars’ men will choose a new leader, who’ll sit on the throne which should rightfully be mine.’ His jaw clenched in anger. ‘When we return to Kodan, I’ll continue my father’s work. I’ll raise an army and win back the kingdom. And woe betide any who stand in my way.’

THE END
"Innocence" he said, while his eyes fell away and slowly slid black irises to study the mist-laden woods around him.
"Losing your innocence, is like losing a limb."
The smile that appeared on his lips was neither cold nor warm - it was colourless.
"She crippled me"
"For that, I will cripple her.