Only three more traps lay before them and already the temperature began to rise again. Dylan brushed his sweaty brow with his right and breathed heavily, again wondering how Tabea was. Throughout the last hours she’d constantly been on his mind and he missed her more with every step.
Under Lora and Swift’s watchful eyes they finally came into a cavern of roaring, searing heat and a low red light.
“The river of fire,” Savoy muttered, looking down into the chasm in the center. “Good description.” Down below flowed a dull red snake of molten rock, coming in to and exiting from the cavern by large tunnels.
“So how do we get across?” Kyle wanted to know.
“Stepping stones,” the Scholar answered.
“There,” Lora said, pointing at high pillars of rock that were strangely floating above the flames, not touching them or any wall.
“What makes them do that?” Dylan asked.
“Magic, Dylan, can’t you feel it?” Savoy returned. Yes, now the lord could, the power was slowly churning inside him.
“Let’s get across quickly,” the Watchcarer advised. “It’s not far to the exit from here.”
“Yes, but it’s dangerous,” Dylan answered, watching the pillars rise and fall and shift left and right.
“We’ll stand the test,” the dark girl answered with a smile and agilly stepped out on to the first. Slowly she waited and watched, picking her way across the stepping stones. Finally she was across. Swift followed much more quickly, only touching four or five of them, and then only for an instant. Dylan sighed and went next. They were only wide enough for one foot to stand on and Kyle’s extra weight on his back made it harder to balance himself, but finally he was across. Savoy followed with Asha on his shoulders. It was an aching process for the dark man and more than once he nearly lost his balance, causing all of them to gasp, but then he was across and they stared at the path they’d come from.
“Let’s go,” Lora finally prompted, “we only have two more things to get through.” They nodded and followed her.
A gentle hand shook Tabea awake and she found herself looking into Alick’s concerned face.
“You’re back!” she said with a gasp, sitting up.
“Yes, m’lady, I am.” There was something grave in his voice.
“What is it?”
“We must move quickly, Lady Tabea,” he answered. “We must reach the front gates of the Labyrinth soon. The lord and the others are nearly at the entrance.”
“How do you know that? And why are you suddenly wearing white?” she asked, noticing his new robes.
“I am a Scholar now,” he returned with a smile. “The Word has prompted me. Let’s hurry. It’s a long way to the gates.”
Lora was right about them coming quickly to the end. Now after a quick walk they stood at a crossroads. To the right a steep stairway ascended and to the left was a low ramp that led up also.
“So, where do we go?” Savoy wondered.
“One leads back, / the other to life,” Dylan quoted. The dark girl stood there, chewing her lower lip and thinking.
“Let’s go up the stairs,” Asha finally said. “Mommy was up there last night.”
“Mommy was up the stairs?” her father asked, kneeling down beside her. She nodded her little head.
“I dreamed it last night. Mommy was at the top of the stairs waiting for us with an old man in white clothes and I ran to her and she hugged me. Then I woke up.” It was told simply, but surely.
“Can we trust it?” Dylan mouthed, looking at Savoy.
“Don’t see why not,” the Scholar answered and stepped on the first step. Suddenly there was a loud rumbling and a portcullis descended over both passageways.
“Well, I guess we’ve made our choice,” the lord said. “Lead on, Asha.” The little girl ran to the stairs and began climbing them. Dylan and Savoy followed close behind, next Kyle, then Swift and Lora bringing up the rear.
Sweat beaded on the lord’s brow as they climbed step after step. Was it the right way? Would they make it out. There was no landing, just this sickening climb. Finally there was a light at the top of the stairs. It came closer and closer and suddenly they were standing in a vast chamber with a high vaulted ceiling with small holes in it to let light in.
“We must be somewhere near the top of the castle,” Savoy remarked. “There are the doors.” He pointed at two high ones that were now shut. They were shaped like great wings. He quickly crossed the room and tried to open them with his hands. No use, the hard stones didn’t even begin to budge.
“For one to exit, one must stay,” Dylan mumbled. “But how do they open and what is the idea. Do we have to offer someone.”
“No, we can’t do that,” the Scholar snapped in a gravelly voice.
“Daddy, what’s this?” Asha asked pointing to a stone that looked like a low dais in the center of the room. He walked over and looked at them. There were two footprints in the rock. He stepped up and on to them, feeling himself sink slightly. Majestically the doors opened, revealing a passageway lined with silent armor.
“So that’s it,” he breathed, stepping back. The doors instantly snapped shut. Savoy turned and walked over to Dylan.
“Don’t you think we can find something to hold that thing down?” he asked.
“No, it’s magic, Savoy. I felt it. Even Asha could hold the doors open, as light as she is. One of us must stay behind so the others can escape.”
“The children have to go,” the Scholar answered.
“And Lora and Swift,” the lord added. “They are the only ones who can defeat Roanna.”
“That leaves you and me...”
“I’ll stay, Savoy, the world needs your wisdom...”
“No, Dylan I won’t permit it,” the dark man said, holding up one hand. “You are the Lord of Carrock, you must return.”
“But I have a son who can take my place. It won’t be so bad if I stay behind.”
“It will be worse if you don’t.” Savoy took him by the shoulders. “Scholars come and go, Dylan. I already know that my Brendan will not be a Scholar like I am. He is gone and married, years ago and so is Lea. My dear wife will be cared for by them.” He looked at the ground and his voice cracked. “And my Lora is now the Watchcarer.” She reached out and affectionately put one arm around his shoulders.
“It’s time I let go, Dylan,” he finally sighed. “Listen to me and go. I will stay here.”
“That’s enough, Lord of Carrock,” he said, voice becoming commanding. “As a Scholar I order you to go and help your lands. They will be in bitter trouble when you return. While we were traveling, I heard rumors that the Hun-Halk were arising. Your people need you, Lord of Carrock. Go and don’t tarry.” He stepped away from the lord and took a step towards the pedestal.
“Daddy.” Lora held him back gently and then hugged him. “I’m going to miss you.”
“And I will you, dear child.” He brushed a tear from her cheek. “Now be a big girl and a strong Watchcarer. You will make it.” She nodded and he kissed her forehead before letting go and stepping up onto the dais.
“The Word be with you all,” he called as the doors majestically opened. Dylan and the others walked through and the lord turned back just in time to see his friend sadly step away. The doors fell shut behind them sealing Savoy the Scholar in his tomb.
“Daddy!” Lora screamed and fell down on her knees, burying her face in her hands. Swift came up and nuzzled her, while Dylan knelt beside her and put his arm around her.
“He’s gone — forever,” she sobbed, now hugging her wolf. “And I didn’t even tell him how much I love him.”
“Don’t worry, Lora, you will see him again,” the lord said quietly. “I can promise you that.” She looked up hopefully, tears still flowing from the hazel eyes.
“Yes, don’t you remember what he told you about being with the Word?”
“It’s a place where everyone is happy!” Asha said, clapping her hands.
“And there aren’t any tears,” Dylan continued.
“And no sickness and no death,” Kyle added.
“And the Word himself is there, I know,” Lora whispered and then smiled. “I can’t wait for it.” She finally got up on her feet and wiped her eyes.
“Come on, we have work to do,” she sighed and held out one hand to Asha, which the little girl took greatfully. They were about to walk forward when quick steps were heard along the pathway.
“Mommy?” the little girl called, letting go of the Watchcarer.
“Asha?” came the call back down the hall. Through the shadows now rushed a slight figure in brown peasant’s clothes, followed by a majestic one dressed in white.
“Mom!” Kyle breathed as his sister took off down the hall. He followed her as quickly as he could. Tabea went down on her knees to hug them tight. Then she slowly stood up to see a weary and dirty Dylan approaching.
“My Tabea,” he breathed, taking her in his arms.
“Dear Dylan, I missed you so much,” she whispered and then he kissed her.
“Yech!” was Asha’s comment. Finally they let go of each other to greet the man who stood behind her.
“Alick!” the lord exclaimed.
“Yes, m’lord,” he answered gravely. “I am now a Scholar and at your service.” He made a bow.
“Then we must find your sister quickly,” the Watchcarer suddenly cut in, coming up.
“Young lady, what has happened to you?” the old man asked, regarding her carefully.
“I’ll explain on the way, sir,” she answered. “We have no time to lose.”
“She will be in the Hall of Mirrors looking for us.”
“Good.” With that they turned and hurried down the dark halls to seek Roanna.
The weather was growing cold as Stev and Alisande Pulleny mounted their horses to go off to the eastern border. Cloud rolled in from the east like an omen of bad luck.
“I have a bad feeling,” the ambassador said quietly.
“About this whole thing. Perhaps you and I should remain here. I don’t trust Livio any more and I’m not sure about several of the others.” He sighed and then urged his horse on out the gate. His wife followed thoughtfully, then dug her heels in and rode up next to Stev.
“I heard something I think you ought to know,” she told him quietly and then described the conversation she’d heard between the three members of the council. Her husband’s brow darkened visibly.
“That does it,” he snapped, suddenly turned his horse and galloped back to the castle. Philip was still at the castle. He must be warned. The servants who were following suddenly were in confusion. What was going on here?
“We’re returning to the castle until further notice,” Alisande ordered.Meanwhile Stev had thundered through the front gates, dismounted, and raced up the stairs. Now he was pounding against the doors to the high marshal’s office. No sooner had he heard Philip call “Come,” than he rushed in.
“Ambassador!” the high marshal greeted him in surprise. “I thought you’d already left.”
“I just got some very important information,” Stev announced, leaning on the desk. He lowered his voice. “Alisande overheard Livio, Balbus and Duchamps discussing Dylan’s fall. I believe his life is in great danger and I will leave towards Damrok at sundown.”
“On the testimony of one person?” Philip asked, raising an eyebrow. “Since when are you so impatient and negative, my friend?”
“Since my wife overheard it. I don’t know how your marriage is, marshal, but I trust my wife explicitly. I have no secrets from her and I know that she will not lie to me.” His face was quite red now. “After all Livio’s ancestor was the first and only tyrant of Carrock and character can be inherited. I’m afraid that he has the same character as his ancestor and will be reaching for the throne.”
“Over my dead body!” Philip growled.
“And over mine and that of many others, including Dylan and Kyle’s. Alisande and I will warn them. I suggest you call Duchamps in and question him. Then I suggest you arrest Livio and Balbus for high treason.”
“Forget it, ambassador,” the marshal said, leaning back. “I can’t do that on your testimony alone. I am not Dylan who can sense these things. I need Balbus’ and Livio’s men and I need yours.”
“Fine, take them. I’ve already given Michael Dubris the command.” He glanced out the window. “We have two hours to repack our things and change, then we’ll be heading towards Damrok.”
“You’ll be traveling by Jaune Ile, Livio’s castle. Watch yourself.”
“I will, that’s why we’re leaving at night.” Suddenly he smiled. “And remember that I have a protection that few others have.”
“And that is?”
“The Royal Wolves of Carrock. Farewell, high marshal. The Word be with you.”
“And you, royal ambassador.” Stev turned on his heel and walked out of the room, not noticing a thin, weasellike man standing beside the door. He quickly rushed down the hall in the opposite direction and moments later a horse thundered out of the castle entrance towards Jaune Ile.
“Where are they?” Roanna muttered to herself staring into the mirror. Somehow she couldn’t find them. Only once had she encountered such a powerful resistance to her spells and that was when she was seeking the Watchcarer. She’d finally found that the beast in the Labyrinth had gotten her, but a very sickening feeling made her wonder if somehow her arch-enemy may have found a way out of the maze with the help of Dylan à Carrock. She also knew that Savoy the Scholar had remained behind and was as good as dead. Yet there was still the Watchcarer.
“Well, then I’ll just have to defeat her again,” she muttered. Yet there was still a little flutter of uncertainty in her heart, remembering the strange dream of her earlier teacher and lover Sean Welling.
“The Watchcarer can and will return, Roanna of Dell Cairn. And when she does, you will die,” he’d told her. It will not happen, she tried to console herself, her fist closing around her robes above her heart. The sound of the door being throne open made her turn and she nearly screamed. There stood Alick, clothed in shining white, a white capsula with golden ends in his right hand, the left at the collar of his robe. He strode in slowly, regally.
“What are you doing here?” she gasped. “I thought you were dead.”
“Not all of us are to go yet, Roanna,” he returned quietly. “The Watchcarer allowed me one thing: to offer you free passage in exchange for your vessel of power.”
“You have no right to make that offer,” she snapped back. He stood up even straighter than before, his dark eyes sparkling.
“I have full authority to do so, Roanna of Dell Cairn.” His voice suddenly had a majesty and authority that made the sorceress take a few steps back. “I have been brought from the darkness to the light and the Word has invested me with the highest office he can give a man: to be a Scholar, something I have no right to be. And yet it is grace.” He had said this in such a way that it shook the deepest part of her being. Might she take the offering of peace? But, no, she must not be weak like her brother had been. She would be strong and send them all to their death. Now Alick extended the scroll to her.
“Here is an offering of amnesty for you, sister. If you take it and agree to it we will all leave these halls alive. If you do not it will mean the end of your life on this earth.”
“You offer me amnesty, fool?” she asked. “You stand in my power and want to offer me the terms of surrender. I think not!” And she laughed.
“You have no power over me,” he answered, “just as I had no power of Dylan à Carrock when he came to defeat me. With the robes, office, and authority of the Scholar comes an invulnerability to all magic and sorcery, as long as I stand in the Word’s will. And now I know I do.”
“Pfh!” she hissed, mumbled an incantation, and made a throwing action with her right. Fire shot from her fingers but it stopped in front of Alick, who hadn’t moved. The flames vanished without touching him. Her eyes narrowed, as she took a step back, reaching for one of the spears that leaned against the wall beside her.
“You may stand against fire, but not against iron!” she screamed, launching herself forward. The Scholar had only a moment to move aside and was not quite quick enough, the sharp point going through his shoulder. The sorceress yanked the spear back and he fell forward. She raised it again to deliver the final blow.
“Stop!” came a voice with more authority than Alick’s had ever borne. It was a woman’s and a girl stepped into the room with a wolf by her side. Her skin was a light brown, her black hair tied back. A circlet of leather crowned her brow. In her right hand was a spear with a head of bone, a flint knife at her side, and a wide gray cloak lay over her shoulders, thrown back to reveal smudged tunic and trousers that must have once been cream colored. Around her neck was a necklace of bear claws. Quiet, yet angry hazel eyes stared at the sorceress, who now smiled sweetly, lowering the spear just a bit.
“Lora à Wiston, the Scholar’s daughter,” she said gently, now sending out her net of magic trying to ensnare this girl. “How kind of you to come. I was hoping to meet you in person.”
“And I you, sorceress,” the young woman returned calmly. “I am afraid that you might change your mind about how positive our meeting is.”
“I could hardly complain,” came the unruffled answer. “Tell me what is this mascarade?” It sounded mocking.
“This ‘mascarade’ is your death, Roanna,” came the quiet answer. It sounded almost sad. “I wish I didn’t have to do this, but I charge you of murder, high treason, and sorcery in the name of the highest Authority.”
“Who is that, Dylan à Carrock?” the sorceress mocked.
“No, the Word.” It was said simply without anger or agitation. There was a clamness about this girl that unnerved Roanna. She slowly weighed the spear in her hand.
“I have only once met a person as impertinent as you, though not quite as calm,” she snapped, trying to gain time.
“That was my predecessor. She passed the cloak and the necklace on to me and now I must challenge you.” The sorceress’ eyes opened wide and she now realized who was standing across from her.
“Die, Watchcarer,” she screamed and hurled the spear, but Lora was much quicker than Alick, stepping aside and grabbing the spear out of midair with her free hand. She dropped the shaft and in the same instant Swift leaped forward, bowling Roanna over. She heaved the gray beast off her before the sharp teeth could bury themselves in her neck. A quick incantation and suddenly the wolf crashed against one of the mirrors, sinking to the ground, unconcious. In the same instant Roanna was back on her feet.
“Your wolf is not much stronger than the falcon I killed,” she mocked.
“A wolf defeated your brother,” Lora answered, circling around, so as to draw the witch away from the doorway and her brother, deeper into the room. As Roanna turned, Dylan slipped in and carefully rolled the old man over, cradling his white head in his arms.
“But I will defeat the wolf!” Roanna screamed and her right hand shot forward. Something like the shards of broken glass flew towards the Watchcarer, who threw her cloak up. It caught the shards and drifted to the ground, empty.
“Your tricks won’t work on me, girl,” the sorceress snapped.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” came Lora’s voice right next to her and she could just barely leap out of the way of the sharp spear. But, though Lora had the instincts of the Watchcarer, she did not yet have the practice and so the sorceress could easily grab the shaft and hold on tight. Now they were staring eye in eye. Roanna’s beautiful face split into a hideous grin and she pulled the shaft up, so it was at neck height. Her dark eyes bored into the girl’s, willing her to be weak. It resulted in an instant of confusion on Lora’s part and suddenly Roanna kicked out and she went down, the sorceress on top of her. The spear now lay across her neck, Roanna pressing down with all her might. The air was growing less and the brown face now took on a slightly crimson sheen that slowly began to go towards purple.
“I have defeated you again, Watchcarer,” the sorceress said with a grin.
“Courage, Lora!” came a voice that the Watchcarer thought she’d never heard again and neither the sorceress. It made her glance to the side and loosen her grip for only an instant, all that the girl needed. Strength surged through her body and she pushed the shaft up with all her might, sending Roanna flying across the room, still holding the spear. Now Lora was back on her feet, eyes blazing with righteous fire.
The sorceress picked herself up as well and rushed at the girl with the spear. The girl picked up her cloak and in one smooth move threw it over Roanna’s head, stepping aside, but not quite far enough, because the maddened woman still caught her and she bounced against a mirror, her head smacking the glass painfully. In the blow Roanna lost her grip on the spear and it went clattering from her hands, rolling across the floor and finally coming to a halt against the wall, more than five feet away.
Roanna leaped back, tearing the cloak from her head and casting it aside. Her eyes reminded Dylan a bit of those of a maddened wolf’s who had lost all its sanity. She now brought her hands up and began to mumble an incantation. Alick raised his head now enough to see what she was about to do.
“Don’t break the mirror!” he cried weakly, but it was too late. Flames shot from the sorceress’ fingers. Lora thew up her arm and the flames suddenly cut into the empty, dirty tunic, destroying it, but they went on, shattering the glass. There was the sound of a small explosion and a mighty suction and suddenly Roanna went flying forward with a loud scream. She crashed into the shards and then they closed around her, encasing her in shimmering, reflecting glass forever. Lora stood there breathing heavily. She wore the halter of wolf skin now, but ignored it staring at a figure standing just behind Dylan and Alick.
“Daddy!” she cried and rushed forward into his arms. Savoy gently pressed her to himself, just glad to be with her again.
“I thought you were dead,” she whispered.
“And I nearly was,” he answered. “A strange man appeared shortly after you left. He was dressed in white and had white hair and a beard and the strangest, most fiery eyes. He told me that someone needed me and then opened the gates.” He stepped back just a bit and regarded her for a moment.
“You know the strangest thing he said was when I asked him how he would escape,” Savoy continued. “He said that the door hadn’t been made yet that could hold him. And that was the last time I saw him. I think I came just in time, praise the Word.”
“You can say that again!” Lora laughed, hugging him again. “But what about Swift?” There was a quiet whining from where she’d been thrown against the mirror, while Savoy bent and examined Alick.
“It is one of the poisoned spears of the claw,” the old man explained. “We must get out of the walls quickly, otherwise I will be dead within the next half-hour, not that I’d mind it anyway.” He lauged quietly and coughed.
“He’s right, Dylan,” the Scholar said, wiping his hands on his soiled robes. “We must go right away.” The lord nodded and picked up the old man. Savoy went, took Lora’s cloak and spread it around her shoulders.
“She’ll live,” the girl told him, “as long as we get out of here and give her some clean water.” Her father nodded and took her spear, while his daughter picked up the wolf. They hurried along the passages that the now failing Alick pointed them and twenty minutes later stood at the gates. The old man’s vision was very unclear now and his breath came in gasps.
“I don’t have my key anymore,” he whispered. “But there should be a lever over there. He pointed to the right. Kyle spied it, a long piece of marble leaning against one wall. He jumped over and pulled on it with all his might. It barely moved, but the great doors swung inward. He let go and the small group rushed over the door sill and by the bleached bones that once had been Swift’s mate. Across the field they rushed to where they’d set up camp four days ago.
“Only four days?” Dylan gasped. “It seemed a lot longer than that.”
“Still, we’ve made it.” Tabea answered. They laid the old man on the ground and Savoy bent over it.
“But are you going to make it, Alick?” the lord asked, kneeling next to him.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” came the feeble answer. “I left all I was back there and I have a distinct feeling that the Word isn’t through with me quite yet.”
“You can say that again!” Savoy grinned and reached into his saddle bag. “I will give you some herbs that should help.”
The evening was cold and Dylan sat a ways away from the campfire, staring into the dark. Why was it that he had such an uneasy feeling. Savoy had told him that the Hun-Halk were rising again. That meant they would want to press hard toward Carrock. He also knew that Philip and Stev would have problems with that stubborn council. It was normally a group of ten with him presiding and more than half were on his side, but he had always been wary of the opposition. The people would have none of another ruler — at least during his lifetime.
“Word, I pray that my son would grow up to be a better ruler than I am,” he whispered into the cool night air. He was shivering again and pulled his warm cloak around himself. He closed his eyes thinking of home, worrying that there would be difficulty. Perhaps some people would take this difficulty as an opportunity to ally themselves with the Hun-Halk and then try to take the throne. No, he knew that the Hans, the lords of the Hun-Halk, took no allies that did not only fight. He knew the stories about their cruelty and he knew that they would only answer to one thing: battle.
“And I will have to lead them,” he sighed. It was not that he was afraid of it. No, the lord of Carrock was known for his extraordinary courage. It was the problem of all the lives that would be lost. They had always made it past the borders and could only be stopped at the ravine that ran east-west along the northern border. If they didn’t attack from there this time? What then? Their simple armament of swords, bows and arrows, spears and other conventional weapons were no match against Carrock’s pistols and rifles. And yet they went forward over their own dead until they could reach the other side...
A gentle arm laid itself around Dylan’s shoulder pulling him out of his dreary reverie. Tabea sat down next to him.
“You looked lonely,” she said.
“I needed to think some.”
“Carrock.” She leaned forward and scrutinized his face for a long time.
“What is bothering you, Dylan?” she asked.
“I’m scared, Tabea,” he returned quietly. “Savoy told me of rumors that the Hun-Halk are getting ready to attack again. What if they’ve already reached Carrock? I won’t have time to make it to the front and help fight them. It will be sheer murder.” He sighed and bent forward, staring into the woods. His voice was pressed. “Eighty years ago, under my grandfather Martyn, they attacked. They came from the north and wiped out everything until they reached the ravine that runs just a hundred miles north of the castle. My grandfather knew that they must stop here or all of the land would be destroyed, so he had his people dig a canal from the nearby river. As the Hun-Halk rushed down the sides of the gorge, my grandfather had them break the last dam and the water rushed in. Fifty thousand Hun-Halk died in those waters and were carried away and still they came on. The men shot until they had no more amunition, arrows, or spears and still they came. It was only a miracle that made their king turn back from the canyon. Grandfather had won, but too many valuable men had died — on both sides. I don’t want that to happen again.” During the narrative his wife’s mouth dropped open and now she stared at the woods numbly.
“And these people are coming back again?” she gasped.
“Perhaps. Hopefully it’s just a rumor, but we must hurry back.”
“And the children?”
“We are going to have to press on very hard, lady love. It’s our only hope. I pray we’ll reach Alick’s village in four days. There you can rest and I’ll go on alone, if needed. But we must hurry.” She stared at him, only once having remembered such grim determination — before the Battle of the Wolf.
“I want to come, Dylan,” she finally found strength to say. He looked at her fondly.
“I wish you could, but you should stay with the children. We don’t want to lose them again.” She looked into his eyes for a moment.
“Okay,” she whispered and then leaned her head against his shoulder.
“Cold?” he asked. She just nodded and he spread his cloak around her, too.