The gentle rocking of the wagon as it rolled across the grassy plains was almost enough to put Llewella to sleep. Almost. If it wasn’t for him, she would have let the Lord of Slumber take her beyond the wall of sleep hours ago. Yet, his mere presence was enough to stave off the onslaught of exhaustion.
He sat across from her and leaned against the wooden half-wall of the wagon. Why hadn’t he stayed away? It would have made things less… complicated. The Fates laughed at her, because there he sat, shackled, and looked as if he didn’t even care. The man’s clothes were dirty from the road and torn in certain places, which revealed hints of intricate tattoo work from beneath the ripped fabric. Those were new, for he hadn’t had them when he left.
His long, black hair fell in front of his eyes. Since his hands were shackled, connected to the wagon’s floor by a length of chain, he could do little to move the pesky strands. Part of her wanted to move the strands for him, another part of her wanted to slap him across the face with one of Madoc’s heavy gauntlets. However, if his current state of being affected his mood, it didn’t show.
“Why do you continue to smile, Roderick? Don’t you know you’ll be hanged from the tall oak when we return?” Llewella asked.
The thought didn’t bring her any amount of happiness though Roderick’s capture should have elated her. He was a sorcerer of some renown and his death would be a mighty blow for her enemies. Yet, things were never so simple.
He continued to smile. Blood rushed to her face. Damn the gods! She moved forward, raising her hand to strike him, yet he didn’t wince or flinch away. His eyes were intense, boring into hers, plunging past her skin and gripping her soul. The way he smiled and looked at her with his dark eyes sent her mind back to an earlier time. Before when things were less complicated. Before when she was happy and didn’t have to worry about protecting the realm. Before when they were both younger. It was too easy to get lost in that smile and let it take her away from the here and the now.
“I smile because I found you, Llew,” Roderick said.
Despite the heat of the summer day, she shivered. His voice was deep, but gentle. She used to listen to him ramble on about the inner workings of the natural forces of magick. The manipulation of energies and focus never made sense to her; she understood footwork, balance, and cold steel, but his voice was enough to warm her on a cold night.
“Let’s see how long that smile stays on your face,” she said and kicked him out the back of the wagon.
He hit the ground with a dull thud and was dragged a distance before he found his footing. To keep up with the trot of the horses, he had to jog. It was her turn to smile.
Llewella turned her gaze to the western mountain range. Mighty peaks of stone thrust into the sky forming a natural temple for the earthen gods. She didn’t like the way Roderick made her feel. She was a battle-hardened sword maiden and had faced countless foes on the battlefield. The past was the past, and she had obligations now.
“I thought you were dead,” Roderick said.
Llewella couldn’t help but look back him. The smile had disappeared and worry lines creased his forehead. For a moment, he looked just as he did that night, long ago. The night he left her.
“It doesn’t matter, you’re dead to me.”
She regretted it the moment the words left her mouth. His dark eyes lost their luster and the corner of his smile fell slightly.
“I am sorry it has come to this, Llew, I really am.”
Llewella wanted to believe him, but she couldn’t. She had heard the stories too often, of the sorcerer of the southern wood laying waste to supply trains. Of how he would enslave men, women and children with his dark magick, only to dispose of them when their work was done. Roderick was a tool of the Empire, a weapon fine-tuned and ready to kill. And for that, there was no other option, no matter their past.
“Save your apologies for the gods. Perhaps they’ll forgive you,” Llewella said.
The soft clop of horse hooves on solid dirt grabbed her attention. It was a distraction she welcomed. Llewella poked her head out the back of the wagon.
An older man with a bald head brought his horse near. He wore a large axe strapped across his back and she had seen him use it many times to bring down his foes. Steel gauntlets covered in sharpened spikes gloved his hands. Llewella smiled.
“Ho, Madoc,” she said.
“Ho, m’lady. We should be at the camp in a couple hours.”
She nodded. Madoc frowned and pulled the horse closer. His voice dropped to almost a whisper.
“Do you wish to ride and rid your presence of that foul sorcerer?”
“No, I must continue to interrogate the prisoner. If he has any information on the whereabouts of the missing scouts, I’ll get it from him. Even if I have to cut the secrets out with a blade,” she said.
“As you wish, m’lady. Beware the sorcerer’s tongue though. It wouldn’t do any good to fall under a spell.”
“Don’t worry, we have the dampening chains on him, I’ll be fine.”
Madoc nodded but cast a glare at Roderick that would make a gorgon cringe before urging his horse forward. When Llewella turned back, Roderick was smiling at her again. Darkness take that man.
“Interrogate me, eh?” he said.
“Silence, or I will.”
Roderick opened his mouth to say something, but a guttural whoop came from outside the wagon cutting him off. The single bellow was answered by dozens more. Llewella tensed at the sound. It was a noise that no man or woman wanted to hear—an Ocraat battle cry.
“Your friends coming to the rescue?” Llewella asked.
“The Ocraats are friends with no one,” he said. His gentle voice dissolving into tempered hate.
She peeked her head outside the wagon. Madoc steered his horse close once again. Two of his lieutenants flanked him with weapons at the ready. The trio scanned the distant hills.
“Raiding part, m’lady. They’re close,” Madoc said. “We haven’t the means to fight them. We’re going to have to outrun them.”
“Understood. Let’s leave the wagon and take the horses,” she said.
“Llewella, you must release me. They have a powerful shaman with them. I can feel him gathering power,” Roderick said and lifted his hands up as high the chain would allow.
“Silence,” she said.
“You must listen to me, this isn’t a trick, they are—”
An explosion ripped through the air and drowned out Roderick’s words. The wagon stopped as the horses reared in fright. Madoc struggled to keep astride his own horse while one of his lieutenants was bucked to the earth. Llewella scanned the hillside, searching for the source. Her heart skipped a beat as her gut dropped.
A ball of flame and ash arced from the hillside and streaked straight to the wagon.
“The restraints!” Roderick cried.
His voice anchored her. It always had. It gave her the strength of mind to act.
“Relacium,” she said.
The metal cuffs around Roderick’s wrists flashed blue and then fell to the floor of the wagon. Without hesitation Roderick grabbed her by the arm. She raised her free hand to strike him, but he was quicker.
He made a quick gesture with his fingers that she couldn’t follow. An intense pressure built around them. Madoc yelled something and raised his sword, and then the world went dark.
The air was blasted from her lungs and a wave of heat rolled over her. Someone said something, but it was as if she were underwater. The voice came through muffled and she only caught bits and pieces, something about fire. Then, she rolled, or rather, someone rolled her.
The darkness gave way to intense light, and all at once, the sound snapped back to normal. Moments later she could see. Roderick ripped what was left of her cloak off and threw it aside. It was half burned and smoldering.
Llewella looked around. They sat in some tall grass. Most of it was burning and sent miniature whirls of smoke drifting up into the air.
“We have to go,” Roderick said.
Things were still fuzzy. She tried to orient herself as to where they were, but the world swam with each movement.
“I phased us out of the way of the blast, but not very far. It was the best I could do on short notice,” he said.
“What?” she asked again.
Roderick pointed behind her. She turned to look and almost threw up. She hated magick. Yet, what she saw was even worse.
The wagon was obliterated. A crater replaced her transportation. Madoc and the others were nowhere to be seen, but given the state of the wagon, it would have been a miracle if they survived at all. She wanted to mourn them, they were good soldiers, and better friends, but the Ocraat battle cry thrummed through the air once again.
“Llew, come on, we have to go before they find us. The Ocraats don’t take kindly to sorcerers, or your people.”
She nodded and tried to stand but she fell to her knees. Roderick helped her, and hoisted her up. He used his shoulder to keep her upright. It was a nice feeling, his shoulder. Llewella was too disoriented to fight it, and she let him help her. Together they moved toward the tree line.