I had barely finished getting to my feet when our adversary made herself known. Her voice was high, silken, and perfect, a soprano flying freely through the night air.
“Do not go anywhere just yet. I promise you ruin if you leave here.”
I spun on my heels to face south. A woman stood between two of the bent, gnarled trunks, her feet resting casually on a pair of the writhing roots that made up most of the surface of the clearing. She was of average height, just a few inches shorter than both myself and Mal, though of course that was two full feet taller than Naht. She wore white. White purer than mountain snows, white fiercer than a wolf’s fangs, and white harsher than crashing waves clothed her, from top to bottom. Only once the shock of her appearance had settled was I able to note what she was actually wearing: a silver-plated set of breastplate, high greaves, tassets, and gauntlets, fitted immaculately over an elaborate and impressive set of white sashes, cut strategically to elevate her appearance beyond that a mere soldier while remaining out of the way in a fight. Atop this all, she wore a white half-cloak that hung still and serene down to her mid-calf, open to show the hilt of the blade she wore on her hip.
Her hair was white-golden, and her eyes so bright as to be barely blue any more.
I made some notes, gulped, and met her gaze.
“I’m so very grateful that’s a promise and not a threat.”
“Threats are for highwaymen, robbers, and kings. I make promises, and I keep them.”
“Well, if you’re not a highwayman, maybe we should intro…”
“Hard to keep a promise like that if you’re not here,” Mal interjected. She sounded bored.
The woman’s head turned, the movement barely perceptible, to level her eyes on Mal. Mal was leaning against the tree I had been sitting under, arms crossed and head tilted. Spook was on her shoulder, tangled in a cascade of black hair. Naht had slid around the tree to hide.
Mal kicked at a patch of dirt and leaves, which sprayed directly through the woman, leaving her white sashes and cloak unmarred.
I sighed. Mal had noticed it, too: on a dark, windy night, this woman’s sashes, cloak, and hair were all unusually still. I was hoping to keep that card face-down for a while, but Mal had her own way of doing things.
“It would not be hard for me.” The woman let a small, sly smile show, sharp at the corners like a pair of bared knives. She abruptly raised her right hand, and she continued speaking.
About three syllables in, I realized what she was doing. My heart leapt to my throat, and I hammered my lungs, jaw, and tongue into motion, chanting over her and grasping at the air with my left hand. I could feel, on my fingers, the strands of energy, of connection, and of meaning that her mind was tugging on. I gathered as many of them as I could, grasped, and pulled.
There was a pop, and all four of us in the clearing felt a tiny discharge of electricity, like the one you get touching a doorknob on a cold winter night, and the gathering energy dissipated.
My heart slowly receded back into my chest, pounding the entire way.
The woman laughed at me.
“I am disappointed. But I believe I have made my point.” She turned to Mal, who was standing bolt upright, hands hanging tense at her side. “You have something that belongs to me.”
“He doesn’t belong to you,” Mal snarled.
“I am insulted that you should think me a slaver.”
“If you aren’t after the boy, what are you after?” I cut in. Mal didn’t show it readily, but from the way her eyes cut at me I knew she was fuming at me for entertaining the woman at all.
“I seek knowledge that the boy possesses. It belongs to me, but he has acquired it nonetheless.”
“I desire his head.” The woman’s eyes narrowed at the tree Naht hid behind, and the next few words that came out of her mouth were words of power.
My mind ached nearly as badly as my legs, but I willed it into action. I roared my own words, as if my lungs’ effort could bolster my mind’s. Again, I found the strands of her spell, and I snapped them. My eyes, hands, and forehead burned with the effort.
I wasn’t sure I could do it again.
“Who are you,” I rasped.
The woman raised her right arm again, swirling her fingers idly in the air, preparing another spell. There was a laugh on her lips as they parted to begin.
Before she could, however, there was a bang. The only way I can describe it is like a water hammer: a sudden change in the flow of liquid in a pipe that causes a dramatic build-up in pressure and an explosive release. The pressure in the glade changed, some sort of bottom dropped out, and then something exploded. I felt it in my heart and staggered backward. My mind was already frayed from the effort of the counterspells, and the sudden sensation overwhelmed it.
The last thing I remember was the woman in white’s laugh turning into a cold, hateful snarl.
When I awoke it was morning. My senses began stirring, and then my mind. The moment my mind came to, I began thrashing against my numb body, trying to spur it into motion. My limbs jerked awkwardly on the ground as I forced myself to roll over before fine motor control had returned to me. My lower arm contacted something, and then that something slapped me.
“Sit still, Howe. You know what, never mind. If you can flop like a fish like that you’re probably not hurt.”
Now supine, I could see that Mal and Naht knelt over me, their heads framed by a canopy of leaves speckled with sunlight. Spook was coming down nearby, having probably taken flight with the excitement of my coming-to.
“Yeah. Howe, take it easy.”
“No. Need to know. What in the heavens…?”
“I know, I know. You need to know. I don’t, though. Whoever she is, she’s bad news.”
I raised myself to a seated position and brushed some dirt and leaves out of my beard and robe. “Let me… reason through this. That was an image. Well, no, can’t be an image. Thought it must be an image at first, but images can’t… cast spells.”
“Yeah. That was a nasty surprise for me, too. Howe.” She paused. “You read a counterspell before coming to see me.”
My face went red. “Mal! I was told there was a demon. I prepared for the worst. And I’m glad I did.”
Her eyes searched my face. “I suppose. And I’m glad you did too.”
Spook gave a hoot. Naht seemed to suddenly burst. “Wait, wait, wait. Can you catch me up, please? I’m confused.”
I tried to shake some of the dizziness out of my head while Mal met his eyes and explained.
“We don’t know who that woman was. But she was very strange, so both Howe and I knew to be on the lookout. We saw that she was too clean, and she stood there and the wind didn’t affect her clothing, so she probably wasn’t actually a person standing there. Some magi can create illusions of people like that. But illusions can’t cast spells. That was what we call a projection. Which is a dreadfully difficult thing to do.”
“Was she casting spells? Were those the funny words?”
“She was trying, yes. Howe was able to stop her. The first one was going to be a strong gust of wind. Strong enough to break bones. The second and third spells… were going to be much worse.”
“So the woman is really good at magic?”
“Yes. But she can’t be here in person. It would usually be easier to simply walk here and find us than it would be to project herself like that. So she must have some reason.”
“So… why did she leave?”
“I ended the projection. Wizards call it a dispel. It’s not always easy, but many people who know magic can also cause other people’s spells to end.”
“It’s also not always that loud,” I added. “I’m surprised. I’ve been out for a whole night. You didn’t already ask these questions?”
“I did,” Naht complained. “She told me to sleep and we’d talk about it in the morning. I’m scared. I don’t even know how I got to sleep.”
Mal and I exchanged a look.
“You needed sleep,” Mal began, meeting his eyes again and putting a hand on his shoulder. “Trust me.”
“What did she want with me? I know it had something to do with me. Am I going to be okay?”
Mal straightened his tunic. “I promise. You’ll be okay. We’ll find you answers, and we’ll find you a safe place.”
Naht broke contact with her. There were tears in his eyes. He looked around himself, tiny, tense, and aimless. I had seen that look before, a long, long time ago.
“Naht,” I called. “Come here.”
I had to repeat myself, but eventually he heard me, and his feet took him over the rough ground to me. His face was screwed up with pain. Not the pain of a bump or a scrape. Not the pain of a broken bone or a high fever. Not even the pain of a dead pet or a sick grandparent. It was a deep pain, a pain for which there is no balm, a pain for which there is no comfort.
I realized then that I had made my decision. The one I had been thinking about since Mal had asked me to leave court behind and journey to the north. I knew I had made my choice because I felt the same pain Naht did. It was the pain of having a future ripped away from you.
“Naht. It’s okay. I’m scared too. I don’t know what to do either.” I offered my sore arms, he fell into them, and we cried.