Ethan blinked as Master handed him a pack. “Where should I put this, master?”
“You get your clothes and the stuff in that there…” Master waved haphazardly at the crate a servant had brought that morning. “Then you put it on you.” Master went to the wardrobe and began pulling things out, tossing them on the bed.
“Yes, master.” Ethan set the pack onto a chair and quickly began gathering his clothes.
Master glanced over at him. “And put real clothes on. Boots, too. We’ll be going by horseback.”
“Yes, master.” He stripped the robe off, shoved it into the pack, and dressed before going to the crate. He pried open the lid to reveal the crate was full of knives. Ethan blinked. They were all styled identically to the ones he’d been practicing with, but there were a dozen pairs each of a seemingly different material. One set looked to be made of some kind of glass. He gave them a curious look, then began packing them away. There were two sets in red sheathes that were decorated with a dizzying array of runes. One set had silvered blades, the other set was blackened iron.
Master slung a sack over his own shoulder before handing Ethan another pack. “Ready?”
“I do not know, master.” Ethan frowned. “Where are we going, master?”
“The point is we aren’t coming back here. So, do you have everything?” Master raised an eyebrow.
“Right.” Master grabbed the end of his leash and led him toward the door.
Lord Vadin met Samet at the door, then pulled his son to him for a hug. “I am going to miss you.”
“And I you.” Samet nodded as he hugged his father back tightly.
He stepped back a moment later, then blinked. “You’re taking Ethan with you?”
“Unless you have a horse that can climb ladders?” Samet raised an eyebrow.
“That can be your next project.” He chuckled. “Take care of yourself.”
“I will.” Samet nodded. “Goodbye, Father.”
Ethan frowned. It was past time for the evening meal, and Master had shown no signs of slowing the horses. His own legs were sore from the speed the horses had kept, and he was surprised neither animal had faltered from exhaustion. It occurred to him that Master had likely enchanted the animals.
It was dark before Master finally slowed his own horse, then came to a stop. “Dismount, grab all the gear from the horses, and turn them loose.” Master shook his head.
He blinked, but nodded. “Yes, master.” He hurried about his task. Master was pacing back and forth near a group of standing stones, occasionally kicking pebbles out of his way. Ethan finished, then gave each horse a smack on the rump to send them back the way they’d come. “Master?”
A strange cry came from Master, and the man spun. He hurled fire at a nearby boulder. The rock glowed for a heartbeat before exploding into jagged shards. Ethan ducked to avoid the debris, then stayed in his covered position, watching Master with wide eyes. The man stood, his eyes glowing as flames danced around him. Then he clenched his fist and pulled his hand back. The flames around him vanished. He took several deep breaths. “Ethan, I need you to listen.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan moved closer, though he kept low. Master’s eyes were still glowing, as they had when he’d killed the Covenant mages.
“Once we are through, you are to touch nothing save with my leave. Nothing in that place is truly what it appears to be. Make no bargain with any of its denizens. You no more want them in your debt than you want to be in theirs. Get the knives in the red sheaths, and keep them close at hand. Draw the ones I tell you to. Do not draw either set without my permission.”
“Do not leave the path. Do not look them in the eye. Do not…” Master sighed. “Be careful, Ethan.”
“Where are we going, master?”
Master turned toward the standing stones. He began gesturing, his motions slow and deliberate. “This place has many names. Most translate to simply ‘beyond’ or ‘between’.” Inside the stone circle, the air began to glimmer. Something appeared within, floating. For a moment, it looked like a mirror, reflecting the world around them. Then it shifted, and showed something else entirely. “It is the land of the Fey.”
“Master?” The word came out as a whimper.
“Samet.” Master shook his head. “My name is Samet.” He gestured at Ethan, and magic grabbed the end of the leash, yanking Ethan to him. Master grabbed the collar, and there was a slightest jolt as the collar broke open. Then Master flung collar and leash away. “Names have power, Ethan. Especially where we are going.” He held out his hand. “Come.”
Ethan swallowed, and took Master’s hand.
Samet looked down at the stone path. Here and there bits of crystal shimmered. The light that illuminated the area had no apparent source, and neither he nor Ethan cast shadows. A small thing, but the effect was extremely disconcerting.
It was not too late to turn back, to try once more to… Samet closed his eyes, and shook his head. “Are you alright, Ethan?”
“The air is strange, master.” Ethan was looking about him. “It smells very…” Ethan shook his head.
“I always thought it smelled rather purple.” Samet sniffed.
“Purple has a smell, master?” Ethan blinked, then he tilted his head before sniffing the air. He frowned, then sniffed the air again. “It…” He slowly shook his head. “Does smell purple, master.”
“That’s a good sign.” Samet gestured for Ethan to follow him as he started down the path. “If it starts smelling yellow, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
It was nearly an hour before they reached the first of the waystones. Samet concentrated, focusing his magic to activate the wards. He took his time, letting the familiar ritual calm him. Finally, he let his hands drop to his sides. “You can make camp now.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan scrambled to obey.
Samet moved to one of the stone benches and dropped himself onto it. “Do you know why we are here, Ethan?”
“To retrieve something for a ritual, master.” Ethan began building a fire.
“Do you know why?” He watched the young man work.
Ethan set about the task with a brisk efficiency. “To give your father victory, master.”
He frowned, and looked Ethan over again. The prince had been a warrior. Even if luck had played a factor in the victory, Ethan had been able to hold against Talit. His father had kept Ethan caged or bound during his captivity for precaution more than simply to increase the boy’s suffering. “You are carrying knives, Ethan. And you sleep next to me every night.” Samet folded his arms. “You could deny that victory to my father quite easily.”
“I could, master?”
The prince looked surprised by the statement. Samet frowned. “Why haven’t you killed me, Ethan?”
“I…”. Ethan looked horrified by the notion. “Master?”
Samet shook his head. “I apologize, Ethan. My mood is strange tonight.” He took a deep breath. “I have not come here to aid my father, Ethan, I have come here to stop him.” He leaned forward. “And I will need your help.”
“I…”. Ethan went still. His hand slowly crept up to his neck, touching where the collar had been. “I don’t understand, master.”
“My father wants me to be like the sorcerer kings of old, to wear the dragon crown. He conquers so that one day, I will rule. His legacy.” Samet sighed. “And to that end, he would have the archways open, unleashing a soul storm upon the land. Those who do not kneel will be obliterated. It is the dark power that drives him to these things, that drove him to be the kind of man who would…”. He shook his head. “But you know what he has become better than most. Will you help me, Ethan?”
Silence fell on the camp for a long moment. “Yes…” Ethan nodded. “Samet.”
He shifted restlessly in the bedroll. Finally, Ethan simply sat up, and looked around. Even with the small campfire, the place remained curiously alien. The sounds, smells, even the taste of the air was wrong. The color and shape of the grass was odd enough without the sense that it shifted every time he looked away. Sometimes it seemed he’d catch the trees moving out of the corner of his eye. Ethan drew his knees to him, then looked at the man sleeping on the other side of the small campfire.
Why hadn’t he killed Master? He’d searched for openings many times in the first days of his confinement. Old master was stronger, and had kept him starved and chained. But Master had simply gone to sleep next to him and it had never once occurred to him to take advantage of the man’s vulnerability. He would have been killed for it, and his death would not have been a kind one, but it couldn’t have been worse than some of what old master had done to him. And eliminating a sorcerer from the world, surely that would have been worth the risk?
Master had… Ethan frowned. Old master would have skinned Vincent alive, or worse. Old master would have broken Vincent as thoroughly as old master had broken him. Master… Samet had healed Vincent and let him go. He felt a twinge of fear at using Master’s name, even in his head. Across the fire, Master lay, asleep. Master had given him knives. His hand touched the hilts of the blades.
Slowly, Ethan stood. He took a couple deep breaths, and began moving to the other side of the fire.
Samet woke to find Ethan had crawling into the bedroll next to him. “Ethan?”
“I can’t sleep, master.”
“Yes, well…” Samet started to shake his head.
“Please, master.” Ethan looked up at him, eyes huge in the reflection of the firelight.
He let out resigned sigh, then nodded. Ethan immediately curled up next to him. “Go to sleep, Ethan. You are safe here.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan sighed contentedly, snuggling just a little closer. Samet put his arm around the younger man, and drifted back to his dreams.
“The gold is for what your Covenant scholars refers to as ‘ghosts’.” Samet indicated the knives. “They aren’t actually the souls of the departed, just echos of very strong emotions.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately, these are most commonly formed by insane rage or despair at an untimely demise, thus its fairly safe to such creatures are hostile.”
“That is what you freed at Kendlemoor, master?”
“Freed is a strong term. They are still bound to place of their death, I simply removed the ward preventing them from crossing over.” He shrugged. “Your friend Vincent made it back in time to warn your brother.”
Ethan nodded. “Why two knives, master?”
“In case you lose one.” Samet shook his head. “We don’t exactly have a blacksmith in our back pockets.” He indicated the next pair. “Dragonbone, and do try very hard not to lose these because I could build a castle for what it would cost to replace them.”
“And what are they for, master?” Ethan picked up one, examining it. The blade was incredibly well balanced, with a hilt that seemed perfectly suited to his hand.
“In a pinch, they’ll kill damned near everything.” Samet chuckled. “But their true beauty is this…” His eyes flashed as he willed a tiny spark of magic into the blade.
The blade seemed to ignite in Ethan’s hand. Flames traveled along the edge of the blade, but their heat failed to burn him. He slashed out at the air, leaving a glowing trail where the knife passed. The flames suddenly shifted, and then the blade was coated in ice. Ethan smiled as he turned it this way and that, and then the magic vanished. “Because a troll is immune to blade but not to flame, right, master?”
Samet laughed. “Trolls weren’t exactly what I had in mind, but yes. Some beings can heal quickly enough that a blade alone is insufficient.”
“Silver for shapeshifters, iron for fey, and…” Ethan touched the shimmering, translucent blades. “I do not know what these are made of, master.”
“A rare form of volcanic glass, one that can be shaped only by magic.” Samet shook his head. “Bloody things took me forever, but they can be used to sever magical bindings. The steel ones are exactly that, steel. Good for eating, trimming fingernails, and stabbing ruffians.”
“And the wooden ones, master?” Ethan indicated both sets of wood-bladed knives.
“White ash, blessed and magically hardened.” He sighed, then nodded to the other knives without touching them. “Those two were carved from the heartwood of a dryad’s tree. They…” He met Ethan’s eyes. “Are particularly harmful to anything related to demons, including sorcerers.” He shrugged. “So, if you do decide to kill me, I recommend those.”
“I don’t want to kill you, master.” Ethan’s voice was quiet.
“Good. I don’t particularly want you to kill me either.” Samet smiled. “Bluesteel and damascane steel are simply variations on steel. Those will do anything the steel ones will do, just fancier.” He stood. “Put your toys away. We should be moving on.”
The next of the strange gray stones was within sight when Master slowed his steps. He frowned, and scanned the area around them. Then his eyes glowed, and he moved his hand. What had a moment ago appeared to be a bush leaped at them with a roar, long taloned paws seeking to rend. It hit an invisible barrier before being thrown back. Four other bushes began moving as well. “Manticores. Iron.” Master’s voice rang out.
Ethan drew the iron knives and slashed at the barbed tail one of the creatures sent toward him. The knife barely grazed the beast, but it howled as though in agony. To Ethan’s surprise, he saw the flesh around the wound was blackened and smoking. He stayed at moved into position slashing at the creatures that attempted to get at Master’s back.
He heard Master grunt, then saw him fling a fireball at the last of the creatures. Then Master stumbled. Ethan saw blood on Master’s leg. “Master?”
“The waystone, Ethan.” Master shook his head. “Get me to the waystone.”
“Yes, master.” He caught Master’s arm and got his shoulder up under him, half dragging the man to the stone. Master’s eyes immediately began glowing, and Ethan saw the strange runes on the waystone begin to shimmer in response.
“The wards are up.” Master sat down heavily on the stone bench, then looked at the wound on his leg. “Bloody hell.”
“Master, are you alright?”
“I’ll be fine. Their poison is a sedative, a paralytic.” Master swayed slightly. “Just give me a mom…” Master slid off the bench to land bonelessly on the ground.
For a moment, Ethan just stood there, staring at the unconscious man. Then he set his pack down and quickly laid out a bedroll, moving Master to where he hoped Master would be more comfortable. Then he frowned uncertainly. He shifted from foot to foot, then began setting up the camp.
Waking hurt. Samet opened his eyes, and tried to lift his hand to rub at his eyes. His hand simply flopped limply. The events of the previous… day?… began coming back to him.
“Master?” Ethan’s worried face appeared above him. “Master, are you alright?”
“Water. Please.” Samet managed to get the words out. Immediately, Ethan grabbed the waterskin. He carefully raised Samet’s head so he could drink. “Thank you.”
“Are you hurt, master?”
Samet tried to raise his hand again. This time, it listened. “I’ll be fine. Takes a bit for it to wear off.”
“I collected two of the tails, master, and drained the poison.” Ethan held up a vial of green liquid. “The others were too badly damaged for me to get much from them, master.”
He blinked. “Well done, Ethan.”
The prince smiled widely. “Thank you, master. I also made dinner, master.”
By the time Ethan had dished up the meal, Samet was able to start moving around again. Ethan quickly cleaned up, then began placing his bedroll down next to Samet. Within a few moments, the young man was curled up next to him. “Will there be more of those beasts, master?”
“Manticore packs are extremely territorial. There won’t be more of those for miles.” Samet shook his head. He had hoped to make it one more waystone that day, but it was too close to dark for that now. “Though it’s odd to see them that close to the path. The land is shifting.”
Ethan rested his head on Samet’s shoulder, snuggling in closer. “They really did look like lions grown from trees, master.”
“Faery tales don’t get everything wrong.” He smiled.
“I was scared, master.”
“You fought well. Thank you.”
“You were hurt, master.” Ethan shook his head. He shifted, putting a leg over Samet’s leg and a hand on Samet’s chest. “I thought…” His hand clutched the front of Samet’s tunic.
“I’m alright, Ethan.” He managed to get his arm around the prince.
Slowly, Ethan released his death grip on Samet’s tunic. Then he lifted his head to kiss the side of Samet’s jaw. “I am glad, master.” His hand began to move in a gentle caress.
“Ethan…” Samet sighed, catching Ethan’s hand in his. “You have no idea how difficult you make it to resist temptation.”
“Why, master?” Ethan sounded hurt.
“Because…” Samet sat up, and turned to face him. “Because when I raise my voice, you cower. Because if I give you an order, you never consider disobeying. Because I am the greatest threat to your people and it never once occurred to you to slit my throat while I lay helpless. Because if a person cannot say no, there is no meaning to their yes and I…” He clenched his fists. “Because while I may have been damned before I drew my first breath there are lines that should not be crossed.”
“You took the collar off.”
It took him a moment to realize Ethan hadn’t called him master that time. “Ethan…”
“I told you no. You were going to kill Vincent and I told you no and you…” Ethan met his eyes. “And you stopped.”
“You stopped. I said no, and you stopped.” Ethan nodded. “And now you are saying no. So, I will stop.” He shifted back to his bedroll, and lay down again, turning away.
For a moment, Samet just sat there, staring at him. “Look at me, Ethan.” Ethan turned around and sat up. Samet sighed. “I’m not a nice man. My father gave you to me because he thought having…” He shook his head. “Would please me. And he was not far from wrong. The thought of you tied to my bed, writhing at my pleasure, obeying my commands, does in fact hold considerable interest for me. So, let me be clear on this, Ethan. If you touch me again tonight, I promise you two things. One, I will punish you. And two…” He met Ethan’s eyes. “I will make you enjoy it.” He took a deep breath. “But the choice is yours, Ethan. It will always be yours.”
Silence descended on the camp again. And then Ethan reached out and put his hand on Samet’s knee.