Heart of the Battle
Chapter 24 of Uninvited Guests
At least three stories
below the battle, Renaud, Richenda, Elise, Crispal and Rory all stood
in a warded circle, hands tightly joined from the tension of the
intense energy draw needed to create the portal.
Safely out from underfoot, Briony huddled in a corner wrapped in Richenda’s cloak as she watched them with big eyes. She could see Mummy through the misty white circle Mummy had made with the funny little cubes. Her eyes were closed tightly with her head flung back, her face white and damp with perspiration. Briony shivered and whimpered a little. Mummy was tired and afraid as were all the others - Briony could feel her very bones quiver from their fear even from where she sat. She didn’t dare go closer though she longed to be a part of the circle - Mummy had wrapped her in the cloak and ordered her to stay right where she was and watch, but not move. Briony had felt a familiar wave of sleepiness at Mummy’s touch, but she had fought it. She was too cold and hungry to sleep in this damp tunnel.
“I want Baba,” Briony whispered to herself very softly so that Mummy wouldn’t hear. If Baba were only here now, she was convinced everything would be all right, again. Baba could always fix everything. He would take them home to Coroth where people smiled and spoke in friendly voices, away from this nasty place and the bad, strange soldiers.
Suddenly, Briony looked away from the others and up at the curving tunnel ceiling then jumped up and turned down the mouth of the nearest tunnel. Baba was very close to her, she was sure of it. He had been very angry a moment ago, but maybe he would be too happy to see her to stay angry. And if she found him, he could help Mummy with what she was doing. Briony began to feel her way down the dark tunnel by running her hands along the wall. She didn’t like the black darkness ahead of her and wished she knew how to make the pretty lights with her hands that Mummy and Baba could make. Once she found Baba though, there was always plenty of nice, bright light wherever he happened to be. All she had to do was look for him.
Her back turned, Richenda felt a surge of power beneath her feet at last, but knew it was not enough to make a safe, stable portal. The moment passed and she staggered to her knees letting go of Renaud’s and Elise’s hands to either side of her. The others had collapsed to sit or kneel on the cold stones too. Beneath her palms, Richenda’s only reward was a dull buzz that made her skin prickle unpleasantly, then the feeling died.
“No!” Richenda moaned and slapped her hands against the inert stones. She felt light-headed from the effort and too exhausted to stand.
“My Lady, there just weren’t enough of us for a transfer portal,” Renaud said softly. “I think we should have another try at finding the one that’s already made. In any case, we’re all too tired to try that again.”
“Yes, I suppose we are,” Richenda sighed. She forced back the tears of exhaustion and frustration that had made her vision go blurry, and rose. Everyone else was standing, all of them swaying slightly, as unsteady on their feet as drunken soldiers coming out of a pub. Rory turned, and frowned at something beyond the warded circle that held them.
"Lady Richenda, your little girl -" he began.
Richenda whirled around in panic. Her cloak still lay bunched on the floor, but Briony was gone.
“Nunc dimitis Domine,” Richenda gasped, dismissing the wards so quickly that her equilibrium took another blow.
“Briony!” she cried. “Briony where are you?” There was no answer. How long ago had the little girl wandered off? Or worse, had she been snatched up by one of the ruffians while all of them were futilely trying to build that stupid portal? Richenda bolted down the nearest corridor with more energy than she’d thought possible a heartbeat before.
“My Lady wait!” Renaud called after her “We mustn’t get separated!”
“What if --?!” Rory shouted.
Richenda ran on without hearing them, thinking only of finding her daughter before someone else did. At a fork in the corridor she stopped bewildered, wondering which way she dared turn when she caught a faint sound off to her right. A footstep, then a little voice calling softly "Baaaa-baaaaa, Baaaaaa-baaaaa.”
Richenda twisted round and sent her handfire down the right hand corridor which gradually sloped up. At the far end she saw Briony silhouetted against a lighter, more open patch of darkness. Beyond the opening, bars of light and shadow indicated the presence of a staircase going up. Richenda ran and pounced on Briony before she could start up the stairs, seizing the wiggling child tightly in her arms as she gave way at last to sobs of relief.
“Naughty, Briony! I told you not to move one step!” Richenda scolded when she could speak again. She undid the scolding by kissing Briony passionately and clutching her tightly. “Where did you think you were going?”
“To find Baba,” Briony said as if it were obvious.
“Darling, Baba, is miles and miles away! That’s why we were trying to build the transfer portal, so we could get home.”
“No, no!” Briony insisted, and pushed away from her mother. “He’s here, Mummy! I heard him inside my head.” She stuck her right index finger into her ear.
“You heard him, lovey?”
Briony nodded vigorously. “He’s HERE," she repeated firmly, then pointed her stubby finger straight up into the air. “We have to go UP.”
Richenda looked at Briony, scarcely daring to hope she was right. If this were only the wishful thinking of a frightened two-year- old, following her lead could be disastrous. But was it possible that Briony had caught Alaric’s psychic presence somewhere in this tumble- down maze of a tower? She was too young and too untrained to really explain what she had felt, so Richenda stroked her pale gold hair for a minute or two, trying to capture the feeling that had made Briony certain enough of finding Alaric to brave a dark tunnel all by herself. Then she sensed it - a red flash of rage that flared just for a moment like a flying spark from a fire. She rose quickly with Briony in her arms and gazed up at the steep turnpike stair.
Some of the stones gleamed with water and moss in the light of her handfire. For a wonder in this part of the castle, it appeared to be narrow, but unblocked. And if Alaric were at the top, he would hardly be alone in unfamiliar enemy territory - rescue could be only a few hundred yards away. Finding this staircase was their first stroke of good luck almost since leaving their cells.
Just then, Renaud and the others came pelting up and stopped at the foot of the stairs. Elise gave Richenda a tremulous smile of relief to see her holding Briony, then handed her her cloak. Renaud held her little leather sack of ward cubes forgotten in his hand. He was gazing up the stairs also, looking deeply relieved.
“Yes,” Renaud murmured. “Yes, I think they took me up this staircase when I was blindfolded yesterday. Even if it’s the wrong one, we can hardly be worse off than we are now.”
“I can think of half a dozen ways we could be worse off,” Richenda said dryly. “But I say we go up, anyway. Maybe it will be warmer higher up.” She gratefully took her cloak back from Elise, and bundled it around herself and Briony.
“Do you know why Briony wandered off, My Lady?” Rory asked. He had his arm around Crispal’s shoulders.
“I think - I hope-- that she sensed her father somewhere on an upper story of this tower and was going to look for him,” Richenda said slowly. “But at least we can move in some direction now.”
“You’ll be glad to see your husband again, My Lady,” Elise said softly.
“I’d be glad to see anybody’s husband right now,” Renaud said. “As long as his sword isn’t pointed at *me*.”
“Me too,” Rory was smiling for the first time in hours. “Especially if that husband is Duke Alaric.”
The little party began to climb in single file, their hearts fearful but lighter with each upward step.
Above them, the battle between Kelson’s men and Alekseyevich’s continued fiercely. Alekseyevich had the slight advantage in numbers, but they were hard pressed by the skill and discipline of Kelson’s handpicked warband. Duncan, Kelson and Dhugal fought as a smooth, deadly three-man team although each of them seethed with impatience at not being able to see what was happening in the knife fight between Alaric and Alekseyevich. They could not afford to be distracted from their own defense however, for the enemy soldiers kept hammering at them. Kelson was their obvious target, and Duncan and Dhugal were hard pressed to protect him, even with the help of Azim and his two Anviller companions directly behind them. The skill of all three Anviller knights, glimpsed in his peripheral vision, awed Duncan, who wished he dared step back and just watch them fight. Instead he swiftly elbowed one enemy soldier in the solar plexus and followed the blow with a sweep of his sword that almost severed his opponent's neck. He glanced up in time to see Dhugal run another man through with his sword, but his own heart almost stopped to see a huge man bearing right down on him, his sword upraised in both hands and ready to strike.
Duncan hurled himself to the right, colliding with Kelson and sending them both sprawling to the floor as the enemy’s sword whistled through the air where Duncan had been a second before. Duncan struggled to rise again, intent on warding off any threat to Kelson until the King could get his feet back under him. He was just in time to see Azim jump into the air from a standstill to plant both feet squarely on the chest of their attacker, easily knocking the man over backwards through the very unexpectedness of the move. An almost casual stab from Azim’s dagger finished him.
Kelson and Duncan were standing again, although Duncan was dismayed to see Kelson suddenly clutch at his upper right arm and stagger backwards as blood flowed from his wound. Dhugal whipped around to engage Kelson’s assailant who easily shouldered him out of the way, forcing him to combat another man instead. Kelson still held his sword, but could not raise his injured arm quickly enough to fend off the next blow, and his attacker smiled unpleasantly, knowing he literally had the upper hand. Duncan saw he was just far enough away to be unable to stop that next blow by conventional means.
In desperation, he tossed his sword to his left hand and lifted his right, pointing his bunched fingers at the man’s eyes. Blue-violet fire shot from his fingertips, catching the soldier square in the face. The man screamed and dropped his sword, clawing at his ruined face with both hands. Using the distraction, Duncan seized Kelson and pushed him against the corridor wall out of the way of the worst of the fighting. Three Haldane knights immediately circled around them facing outwards to defend their King. It gave both Kelson and Duncan a tiny breathing space, but it wouldn’t last long. As soon as Alekseyevich’s men realized Kelson was no longer in the thick of the fighting, they’d look for him and come after him again. And once they realized he was wounded….
“How badly are you hurt?” Duncan demanded of the King, seeing a smear of blood against the stone wall. More blood seeped between Kelson’s fingers as he clutched at his arm just above the elbow.
“S’ a clean cut,” Kelson whispered. “But it’s deep - right down to the bone, I think.” He was white in the face, and breathing hard, from exertion and pain. He bit his lip as Duncan confirmed what Kelson had told him with his own eyes.
Rather than waste any time discussing it, Duncan clasped the injured arm in both hands, calling up his Healing power, determined to at least stop the bleeding and close the wound before they were in the thick of the fighting again. Already men were beginning to come hard at the three Haldane knights who screened them.
Abruptly, everything went quiet, as if every man in the corridor had frozen in his place. Duncan looked around in surprise only to see Alaric pinned to the ground behind him with Alekseyevich astride his chest, a long dagger blade held to Alaric’s throat.
Incredibly, Richenda was also there with Briony clutched in her arms and both of them were staring at Alekseyevich in terror.
“Come no closer, Madame,” Alekseyevich taunted. “Unless of course, you wish to be widowed for a second time.”
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