Graham stared at the scene in front of him. The black stone of the archway had turned white. The temple honor guard stood in a loose circle around a man who was laying on the group, apparently unconscious. And standing over him was…
The king strode forward. “Ethan.” He pulled his little brother into a hug. “Ethan.”
“King Robert.” One of the Covenant mages started to step forward.
“I highly suggest…” Graham narrowed his eyes at the buffoon and held up a hand to forestall him. “Waiting patiently.” Ethan was alive. Alive and apparently unharmed. He looked up at the arch. If it was active, it would be glowing, and… The stone had turned white. It looked almost like ash that managed to still hold its shape.
“Yes, Prelate.” The mage immediately retreated.
“You’re safe.” Robert’s voice shook. “You’re alive. Blood of the gods, you’re alive.”
Ethan suddenly pulled away. He turned, and a dagger appeared in his hand. He pointed it at one of the guards who’d moved toward the man at their feet. “Keep back.”
Robert waved the man back. Graham turned toward the mage. “Report.”
“The archway is sealed, Prelate.” The mage nodded. “Most of the danger…” He glanced at the unconscious man. “Has been contained. We were attempting to complete dealing with the threat, but —”
“You did nothing.” Ethan pointed the dagger at the mage. “Make one move toward him, and I’ll cut your throat.”
“Ethan?” Robert glanced at his brother.
“As you can see for yourself.” The mage narrowed his eyes at Ethan.
“You sealed the archway?” Graham blinked. The Archmage had told him such a task was all but impossible without rituals that were lost, and even if they’d had the rituals it would require… “The Archmage said that task would require almost all of you.”
“Yes, well —” The mage shifted uncertainly.
“They didn’t.” Ethan shook his head. He gestured at the prone man. “Samet did.”
“Wait…” Robert turned back toward his brother. “Samet?” His eyes widened. “Samet Vadin?”
“Blood of the gods…” Graham reached for his amulet. “That’s the sorcerer?” It made no sense at all.
“How did he get in here?” Robert whirled on his guards. “How did he get past you?”
“We came via the Beyond.” It was Ethan who answered. “Through hell. It was the only way to get here in time to save you.” He met Robert’s eyes. “The sorcerer just saved your kingdom.” He lowered the knife. “Just as he saved me.”
Robert took several deep breaths before tearing his eyes away from the sorcerer. He turned toward the mage. The man shifted uncomfortably under the weight of the king’s gaze. “Did the sorcerer seal the archway?”
“We do not know the man’s true intent —”
“Did he?” Robert folded his arms.
The mage took a deep breath. “It would appear that way, your highness.”
He turned to look at Graham. “Why would the sorcerer open the archway just to seal it?”
“His name is Samet.” Ethan shook his head. “And he did not open it.”
“We will get to the heart of the matter, Ethan.” Graham gave Ethan a reassuring nod. “In the meantime, the sorcerer should be bound, at le —”
“No.” Ethan drew a second knife. “I will not allow it.”
“The boy is clearly enspelled, your highness.” The mage shook his head, the turned toward the gray armored guards. “I will perform the binding, if you’d be so kind as to secure the boy.”
“A hand touches that boy…” Another voice joined the conversation. Samet slowly sat up. “And I will render its owner to ash.”
“Samet.” Ethan smiled and sheathed one of the knives before moving to the man’s side. He held out his hand to help Samet back to his feet. The sorcerer’s eyes glowed faintly as he stood.
Robert squared his shoulders as he faced the sorcerer. The sorcerer shook his head. “I did not come here to begin trouble, your highness.”
“And yet trouble is here.” Robert considered the situation. He had a dozen Covenant mages with him, but Samet had previously overcome four quite easily in a matter of moments. The man had been unconscious moments ago, but he’d been taken by surprise last time. And it was clear Ethan was prepared to defend Samet.
“I will give you my word that I shall initiate no hostilities.” Samet nodded. “But I will not permit these fools to bind me.”
“Understood.” Robert nodded, then turned to his guards. “Arrows ready. If he starts to cast or I give the signal, shoot to kill.” He turned back toward Samet. “Manacles will be required.”
“Robert…” Ethan started to shake his head.
“It’s alright, Ethan.” Samet nodded. “I find those terms acceptable enough.” He smiled at Ethan. “He is, after all, your brother.”
“As long as everyone understands I’ll kill anyone who shoots at you.” Ethan shrugged. When one of the guards produced a set of manacles, Ethan snatched them out of his hand. Samet put his hands behind his back so Ethan could secure them. Ethan then turned toward Robert. “Done.”
“Ensure he’s unarmed.” Robert started to gesture at a guard.
Ethan rolled his eyes, then turned to Samet. He removed the dagger from Samet’s belt, and handed it to the nearby guard. Samet made a small coughing sound, and Ethan raised an eyebrow. Samet shrugged. “Right.” Ethan nodded. He took a kerchief out of his pocket, then reached into Samet’s coat and removed an ornate black bladed knife. He wrapped it carefully in the cloth, then removed Samet’s handkerchief and wrapped that over it as well before offering it to Graham.
“Do not let that touch your bare skin.” Samet nodded to Graham.
Graham swallowed before taking it from Ethan. “Given the circumstances…” He gave Robert an apologetic look. “I must suggest Ethan be disarmed as well.”
“Agreed.” Robert slowly nodded.
With a shrug, Ethan removed the red sheathed daggers. And then, to Robert’s surprise, he removed another dagger from behind his neck. Then one from his shoulders. Then one from an arm sheath, then another from a matching arm sheath. Then another from his back. Then a set from the front of his boots and a set from the back of his boots. Then another from his hip. The sorcerer watched, trying and failing to keep a straight face as Ethan continued producing blade after blade from seemingly out of nowhere and handing it to the guard. Another dagger from a sheath on chest, then one another from his back. Ethan frowned at the daggers the guard was holding, then counted them quickly. He frowned again, then suddenly nodded to himself before removing yet another from a sheath on his lower leg. He handed it to the guard. “I’m going to want all of those back.”
“Let’s…” Robert took another look at the arch. “Head back and…” He sighed. “Sort this mess out.”
As they started walking, he heard one of the guard’s murmur something. “How many?”
“Twenty-four.” The guard carrying the knives responded.
Tabitha ran down the stairs, followed by all four of their daughters. They all quickly outdistanced her. Sarah reached Ethan first, throwing her arms around his shoulders. Margaret hit him a moment later, her arms around his chest. Anabeth encircled his waist, and Lucille got him around the left leg. All of them started talking at once. She laughed, then noted the slightly panicked look in Ethan’s eyes. “Girls, give your uncle some room.”
They backed off somewhat reluctantly, though all continued talking. Tabitha held out her hand. When Ethan took it, she pulled him into a hug. “You’re alive. I never stopped praying for you.”
“I know.” He hugged her tightly. “I know.”
“I’m never letting you out of my sight again,” Lucille announced. She folded her arms fiercely.
Her gaze went past Ethan toward her husband. Graham was next to Robert, clutching his amulet. A dozen Covenant mages stood in a circle around another man, their knuckles white on their wands. The guards all held their bows with arrows notched, and were watching the man nervously. Robert had a hand on his sword hilt. The man in the center had his hands manacled behind his back. And oddly, he was watching Ethan with a wide smile on his face. “Robert?”
Robert turned to the guards. “Escort him to the warded cells. I want a guard on him at all times.”
“Yes, your highness.” The guard saluted before leading the mages and the prisoner away. Ethan watched them go with a worried look on his face, but she was surprised to note that the prisoner gave Ethan a reassuring nod before following his captors.
“Who…” Sarah started to ask.
“Sarah, please take your sisters and go. You can visit with your uncle soon, but right now I must speak to him.” Robert smiled at Sarah.
“Yes, father.” Sarah pulled her reluctant sisters away, and headed back up the stairs.
She kept hold of Ethan’s hand, afraid that if she let go he’d be lost again. “What’s going on?”
“That is what we are trying to find out, your highness.” Graham bowed to her.
“Ethan…” Robert took a deep breath. “I need to know what the sorcerer is doing here.”
“I told you that already.” Ethan shook his head. “We were sealing the archway.”
“Wait…” Her hand tightened around Ethan’s. “That was the sorcerer? Vadin’s son?”
“His name…” Irritation filled Ethan’s voice. “Is Samet.” He shook his head. “Vadin’s been feeding the archway. He was planning to open it to take your forces from behind, to destroy Talidir and the Coalition. Samet stopped him.”
“Ethan, he’s a sorcerer.” Graham folded his arms. He sighed. “How did you two even get past the guards in the first place?”
“I told you already, we came through the Beyond. We had to go there to get what he needed for the ritual anyway.” He turned to look at Robert. “Robert, brother, Samet is a friend and ally. He’s the only reason I’m alive, the only reason Talidir isn’t at the mercy of the Warlord and a soulstorm.”
“I will…” Robert took a deep breath. “Speak to the sorcerer, hear what he has to say. If what you say is true, then…” He took another deep breath. “Then I will give him a chance to prove himself.” He lifted his head. “In the meantime, Ethan, I…”
“Lucille’s getting tall.” Ethan nodded. “And…”
“Come.” Tabitha squeezed his hand. “Meet your nephew. All else can wait until morning. You’re home.” She stepped back a little, taking in his appearance. “But first, we should get you to a healer.”
Samet sat down on the stone bench in the cell. It was cool, cold enough to be uncomfortable. None of the guards seemed inclined to approach close enough to remove the manacles. The wards engraved into the stone were strong, but old. Overcoming them would be difficult, but well shy of impossible.
A small smile came to his face. Ethan was home, and safe. The look on his face when he’d seen the girls had been… He leaned back on the bench, but with his hands secured there was no true way to get comfortable. He just hoped Ethan managed to convince his brother of their good intentions before he needed to empty his bladder, or this could get rather awkward.
Ethan sat, listening to Anabeth and Lucille eagerly tell him all he’d missed in the last two years. Apparently, he’d missed Justin’s first toddling steps by only a few days. He shook his head. “You know, I’m not actually sure what today’s date actually is.”
“The seventh of Harvestmere.” Anabeth grinned at him.
“So, you are thirteen.” Ethan looked at her. He wished he could fully relax, but he felt on edge. They kept touching him, and he couldn’t watch them all at the same time.
“And you’re twenty now.” Lucille nodded. “We held a birthday vigil for you, even though we didn’t know where you were.”
“Sir Vincent told me.” He looked up at Robert. “Did he make it back alright?” When Robert nodded, Ethan exhaled. “We didn’t have a lot of time to talk. Did the rest of my men, are they…?”
“Most of them are well.” Tabitha gave him an apologetic look. “Sir Cassius was killed a few months ago during a naval skirmish, and Sir Alban died retaking Candlemere.”
He swallowed, his eyes half closed. Then he nodded. “And Sir Alban’s son, is…”
“Sir Jakob took him as a squire.” Robert straightened.
“I’d like to see them, if it can be arranged.” Ethan looked up at Robert. “It wasn’t their fault.”
“Knowing that in your head and knowing it in your heart are two different things.” Robert sat. “But we will get your guard together again as quickly as we can. I don’t…” He took a deep breath.
“Graham assigned mages to each of us,” Margaret said. “And doubled our guard.” She smiled at Ethan. “Sir Matthew leads mine.”
“Standing about the library all day.” Ethan furrowed his brow. “I bet he hates that.”
“He keeps complaining about bookworms infesting his boots.” She nodded.
“The man earlier…” Sarah narrowed her eyes. “He’s the sorcerer that almost killed Sir Vincent.”
“Sarah, Samet is…”
Sarah shook her head. “Vincent said that sorcerer had you on a leash.”
“That’s enough, Sarah.” Tabitha’s sharp voice cut the silence before it had time to fully form.
“Mother, I talked to the guards. He nearly killed one of them defending that…” Sarah shook her head. “Thing.”
“Samet fought and killed a dragon.” Ethan’s voice was low and angry. “To ensure he could seal the archway and prevent it from killing everyone here.” He lifted his head to meet Sarah’s eyes. “Do not call him a thing.”
She looked away first. Lucille’s eyes were wide. “Dragons are real?”
He turned to look at her, and managed to put a smile on his face. “And the stories really don’t do justice to just how bad they smell.”
“You girls should be getting to bed.” Tabitha straightened.
“I will be here in the morning.” Ethan nodded to Lucille. “And I’ll tell you about the werewolves.”
He wasn’t sure what was less comfortable, the stone bench or the number of Covenant mages staring at him. Samet rolled his eyes, turned over on the bench to give the mages his back, and slipped into a meditative trance.
Almost immediately, Enesuriel popped into his dream. “This cell is warded against Fey.” He smiled. “Even pretty ones.”
“It’s too big.” She shook her head. “Little things can slip through the holes without any trouble at all.” She raised fluttered up to him. “Do you need me to rescue you?”
“Ethan should be able to manage that soon enough.” Samet nodded to her.
“He should get a move on.” She folded her arms. “Or at least get you curtains. That cell is boring.”
“Now those were proper wards. Not a hole in them at all. You cut off the storm, it can’t pour out there now.”
“Good. Let me know if the situation with the others changes.”
She kissed his nose. “If you’d taken my suggestion about a cape, you’d have something to cover up with right now.”
“Ethan?” He turned to see Tabitha. She sat next to him. “You should be in bed.”
“I, uh…” Ethan rubbed the back of his neck. “I couldn’t sleep.” He wasn’t sure what she’d say if he told her it was because Samet wasn’t sleeping next to him.
“Big day.” She put her hand on his shoulder. He managed to stop himself from flinching at the touch. “Robert and Graham are still pacing the war room.” She frowned slightly, as her fingers touched the edge of the brand. Anger lit her eyes. “The warlord did this.”
“He made me do it.” Ethan swallowed. “Part of his price for letting my men go.”
“Do you…” She ran her hand across his shoulder soothingly. “Ethan, if you need to talk about anything, I’m here.”
“I love you no matter what.” She hugged him to her. “You know that.”
He wrapped his arms around her, and let her hold him. It took him several minutes to find words. “Whenever the coalition had a victory at sea, the warlord would drag me to the water and force my head under. He’d drown me, over and over, sometimes for hours.”
“Oh, Ethan…” Her arms tightened around him.
“Not long after he gave me to Samet, I went into the tub and the water went over my head and I panicked. I clawed and kicked at Samet as he dragged me back out, and then I was terrified he was going to…” He took a deep breath and looked up at her. “He didn’t. He calmed me down, and then a few days later he took me out of the castle to a lake. He cast a spell so we could both breath under water, and then he took me through this sunken city. It was…” He smiled at the memory. “Incredible.”
“And you weren’t afraid anymore.” She met his eyes.
“I wish that were true.” He gave her an apologetic look. “But that was when I stopped being afraid of him.”
Robert stared at the man in front of him. “This makes for a rather interesting turn of events.”
“More than you know, your majesty.” The sorcerer starred back calmly. The man’s accent was unusual, somewhat different than Vadin’s.
“I actually sent one of my best agents after you, thinking to exchange you for my brother.” Robert folded his arms. “He sent a note saying he’d located you in Drusil, but he never returned.”
“Tall man, scar over his left eye?” The sorcerer raised an eyebrow.
“That would be the one.”
“This is going to be one of those very awkward conversations.” The sorcerer sighed.
“Perhaps we should make it a more productive conversation.” He narrowed his eyes, then gestured at the nearby guard. The guard stepped forward and backhanded the sorcerer across the face.
The sorcerer staggered a little, but didn’t fall. He spat blood out of his mouth. “And here I’d hoped we could be civilized.”
“I fear your father set fire to that option some time ago.” Robert shook his head. “I want to know what he’s planning next.”
“I haven’t been to my father’s war table in a couple months now. He’s planning on conquering the world, but you knew that already.”
Robert nodded to the guard. This time the guard issued a short jab to the sorcerer’s side, eliciting a pained grunt. “With your assistance. We can deny him that at least.” The guard hit the sorcerer with another jab to the stomach. “Your father has mages that have warded his strongholds.” He nodded, and the guard punched the sorcerer low in the back. “You will tell us how to get past those wards.” He nodded to the guard, who shifted to backhand the sorcerer again. Blood trickled from the sorcerer’s nose.
“Ethan has two knives that would do that trick readily.” The sorcerer spat out another mouthful of blood.
He asked several more questions, having the guard punctuate each one with a blow. The sorcerer fell at one point, and the guard jerked him back to his feet, twisting his manacled arms up behind him. Pain showed on the sorcerer’s face. Robert folded his arms again. “How do we defend against your black fog?” The guard punched the sorcerer in the kidney again.
It took the sorcerer a few moments to catch enough breath to respond. “Your majesty…” The sorcerer narrowed his eyes. “I am here, cooperating, purely because I wish to be. And I am starting to regret that decision.”
Before Robert could respond, the door opened and Ethan entered, followed by a frantic looking Graham. Robert signaled the guard near the door, who attempted to grab Ethan’s arm. Ethan moved, catching the man by the shoulder and almost absentmindedly tossing him to slide across the ground before continuing forward. The next two guards looked uncertain of what, exactly they were supposed to do in this situation. Graham shook his head. “I’m sorry, your majesty, when he heard you were interrogat –”
“Samet, are you alright?” Ethan walked up to the sorcerer, reaching up a hand but stopping a heartbeat before touching the sorcerer’s bloody nose.
“We were just clearing up a minor misunderstanding.” The sorcerer nodded to Ethan before giving him a concerned look. “You’ve seen the healer?”
“I’m fine.” Ethan nodded. He shook his head, and his voice was furious. “You’re not.”
Robert drew himself to his full height. “Enough. Ethan, explain yourself.”
“Samet is trying to help.” Ethan turned to face him.
“He’s a sorcerer.” Robert growled. “Ethan, get away from him.”
“Oh for…” The sorcerer bumped Ethan with a shoulder, then jerked his head toward Graham. “Your brother would feel better if you were behind the Prelate.”
“But he’s less likely to order the guards to just start shooting if I’m standing here.” Ethan shrugged.
“Sir Corth, take my brother back to…” Robert started to gesture at one of the guards.
“Robert.” Tabitha’s voice froze all of them in place.
“Tabitha…” Robert turned toward her.
She stared gave him a look that somehow managed to be both serene and utterly furious. “This is not…” Her voice was calm. “How we treat our guests.” She turned to look at Graham. “I am having servants prepare the Autumn Room. Please see to it our guest is escorted there after he has seen the healer.” She turned back toward Robert. “Dinner will be served promptly at six.” She turned, and walked gracefully from the room.
Silence hung in the room for several moments. Then Robert nodded. “Graham, arrange wards and a guard for the Autumn Room.”
“Yes, your majesty.”