The Woods: Chapter 10

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Thomas settled the breastplate over his shoulders, then smiled as Ileana began helping him with the straps.  A memory came to him.  “The last time you did this for me you tied them in knots.”

She laughed.  “I was fourteen, and you managed to win despite them coming loose.”  She straightened, then rose up to kiss him.  “And I’m much better at knots now.”

“Vula teach.”  The goblin was examining one of his gauntlets.  She poked them before wrinkling her nose with disapproval.  “Why have metal fingers if not add claws?”

Considering the time the goblin had bound him had nearly killed him, he couldn’t really deny her expertise.  “Claws make it more difficult to precisely direct the blade.”  He’d seen clawed gauntlets before, even tried them before rejecting them as impractical.  They looked frightening, but their sole use appeared to be intimidation.  Or at least, he’d always thought so until facing Keffer’s claws in a sparring match.  Granted, when Keffer abandoned his human mask his claws were more like talons and on the hands of a creature that was not only inhumanly strong and fast but capable of wielding considerable magic.  It had been a few years since a training match had left him almost too bruised and exhausted to move.

“If had good claws, not need blade.”  She sniffed before handing him the gauntlet.

“The blade allows me a greater range and more maneuverability.”  He put the gauntlet on.  And without that range and maneuverability, Keffer would have little problem tearing him to little bitty shreds.  For that matter, he wasn’t entirely sure Vula and her claws wouldn’t be able to manage the same.  He imagined fighting her would be something akin to battling a rabid wolverine.

“Until Vula bite off arm.”  She grinned, her inhumanly wide mouth full of sharp, jagged teeth.  A rabid wolverine with the teeth of a shark.  It was possible she could actually bite his arm off.  Or at least tear enough of it away to render it useless and bleeding out.

“Yes, but wouldn’t you biting off my arm also make claws useless?”  He raised an eyebrow at her.

“It…”  Vula blinked, then frowned.  “Vula need think on it more.”  She scratched her head, then her face brightened.  “Vula bite off leg!”

He exhaled.  Except in tournaments he’d always preferred to wear no more than greaves rather than bog himself down with heavier armor.  But when it came to facing something like Vula, maybe enclosing his entire body behind metal wouldn’t be a bad idea.  “An excellent tactical choice.”  He nodded to her, and she grinned again.  His eyes went to Ileana.  “Speaking of tactics…”

“We discussed this already.”  Ileana shook her head.  “The castle cannot be taken by outside forces.  The only way we can capture it is if we sneak inside.”

“If we enter announced, there may be no need to take the castle.”  He shook his head.

“As much as I hope Nicolas does prove reasonable, I cannot take the chance.”  Her voice was firm as she handed him the sword belt.  “We will use the hidden entrance.”

“And if Nicolas has already found it?”  He attached the sword belt.  Nicolas would undoubtedly have searched for such things his first day inside the castle.  Assuming he hadn’t done so upon previous visits.

“He can’t have found it.”  Ileana laughed.  “It can be revealed only by magic.  Once we are inside, we can activate the castle’s wards and hold it against anyone seeking to take it from us.”  She put her hand on his chest.  “No harm will come to Nicolas’s family, and I will do all I can to prevent harm from coming to Nicolas himself.”

“That is all I can ask.”  He gave her a small bow.

#

A small force was better, and once inside she could activate the castles other defenses.  Reinforcements could be called across the Veil.  She most of her little army at the gathering point, taking only Keffer, Thomas, and Vula for the initial incursion.  Once they reached Nicolas, she could only hope that Thomas’s presence was enough to get the man to see reason.

The passage was dusty and full of cobwebs, and the long uncharged glowstones gave off only the faintest hint of light.  Not a surprise, no one had been down here in over three years.  She’d been a mere thirteen when her father and Nacio has brought her down to shoe her the path.  Her fingers touched the wall inside a small armory.  Names were carved into the old, dark wood.  A long list, going back through time, spanning generations lost to memory.  It was the newer names that gave her pause.  Her parents.  Her brother.  Her sister.  And there, her own.  Nacio had held the light for her as she’d added her name to the list.  There was still a faint scar on her finger where she’d cut it to stain the letters with her blood as part of the ancient ritual.  The faintest thrum of magic could be felt as her fingers touched the letters. “I am home.”  Her voice was thick.

Hands touched her shoulders, and another set encircled her knee as the others wrapped their arms around her.  “Ileana.”  Thomas’s voice spoke into her ear.

“The castle remembers me.”  Despite her tears, she smiled, and looked up at the wall.  “My family.”

Keffer extended his hand to point at a name near the top.  “Lilian of the Waters.  First of your family to cross beyond the Veil.”  He rubbed her neck gently.  “You have her eyes, Precious Heart.”

“No.”  Vula wrinkled her nose.  “Eyes no last that long, even in jars.”

“He meant metaphorically.”  She ruffled Vula’s hair.

“At least, we all dearly hope so.”  Thomas nodded at the goblin.  “Because I really don’t want to dwell on the alternative.”

“Saving eyes is waste.  They tasty.”  Vula licked her lips.  “Like grapes.”

“Yeah, add that to the list of things I really don’t want to dwell on.”  Thomas shook his head.

“Thomas no like eating eyes?”

“No.”  He rubbed his forehead.  “No, Thomas does not like eating eyes.”

“Can Vula have Thomas’s share?”

“Yes.”  Thomas quickly nodded.  “Yes, Vula can always have Thomas’s share.”

Ileana laughed again as the goblin hugged Thomas around the knees.

#

“We are in the castle now.”  Ileana gestured as they entered a small chamber.  “Secret rooms beneath the castle proper, connected into the secret passages.”

“And these can be seen only with magic?”  Thomas looked around.

“Not just that, but they exist partially beyond the Veil, bending reality just slightly.  A wall only a foot wide can contain a corridor three feet wide.”  She exhaled.

Meaning had they not taken her family so completely by surprise through treachery…  “Father was right.”  He exhaled.  “There was no way this castle could have been taken save by considerable forces already within…”  An overwhelming force already within.  If any of her family’s soldiers had made it to the corridors, even a small number of men could have picked off their forces, opened the castle up to the reinforcements from the valley.  Her father had been well-loved by his people.

“Yes.”  Ileana’s eyes narrowed.

“He knew.”  Thomas’s fists clenched.  His father hadn’t lost control of his soldiers in the confusion.  They’d been doing exactly what he’d intended all along.  “He knew before we ever left Neachtain that he was going to take the castle.  That’s why he insisted on the full honor guard.”

“You said…”  Ileana folded her arms as she turned to face him.

“I said what I believed to be true.”  Thomas felt his own fury rising.  “He told me that night about the letter from the king and its instructions but…”

“He lied to you.”  Keffer’s voice was soft.

“He…”  Thomas gave a slow shake of his head.  “Used me.  Used…”  Thomas bowed his head.  Had his father ever intended to take Ileana’s family alive?

“Thomas bait for Ileana.  Ileana bait for Thomas.”  Vula made a growling sound.

“Then all that remains is to learn why.”  Ileana’s eyes were burning.

“No.”  Thomas touched his sword hilt.  “That’s not all that remains.”

#

She was surprised to feel herself feeling some sympathy for Thomas.  After three years, she’d become accustomed to the taste of betrayal.  This was still new for him.  Ileana laid a hand on his arm, and he nodded to her.  “I’m sorry.”  He met her eyes.  “I’m so sorry.  I should have protected you.”

“We were both betrayed.”  Ileana put her hand on the back of his neck, and kissed him.  “We will learn the truth.”

“Yes.”  He took a deep breath.  “We will.”  He exhaled again.  “Ardal must have lied.  Provoked Val as an excuse to…”

“Val was no warrior.”  Ileana nodded.  “And he knew Ardal’s reputation.  I’m not sure Ardal could have provoked —”

“There are few things a man will not do…”  He met her eyes.  “To protect the wife he loves.”

A chill went through her.  Ardal’s actions were brutal, but to her surprise she’d been willing to accept they were actions done in the unjustified rage.  Rabid and horrific, done more by beast than man.  Thomas was implying that Ardal had gone into that chamber with the intention of raping her sister and that somehow made it worse.  From the look on his face, he felt the same way.  Another thought came to her.  “And you would not have spoken against him even if you had learned, because their story was treason and…”

Fury passed over his face.  “And they could always threaten to paint you with the same brush, suggest you were complicit and…”  He nodded.  “A neat plan, undone by you learning how to fly.”

“Why did you not question…”  She saw his eyes flicker, then felt her own throat swell again.  “Because you were grieving.”

“I’d slain a man I called a friend, a man who had just become my brother.  And then I saw you…”  He nodded.  “I didn’t do a lot of thinking at all for a few months.  If Nicolas hadn’t taken me with him, I…”  He shrugged.  “By the time I was functional again I didn’t want to think about it at all.”

Her hand lifted to touch his cheek, and they heard a sniffling sound.  They both turned just in time to see Vula blow her nose.  When she realized they were looking at her, she sniffled again.  “Is sad.  Now Vula sorry about kicking Thomas.”  Vula’s lips pursed.  “Vula no like being sorry about kicking people.”

Keffer ran a hand down his face.  “Perhaps we should…”

“Yeah.”  Thomas nodded.  “Yeah we should…”

“Yes.”  Ileana gestured as she led them into the hidden hall.  According to her father, this had once been a chamber for rituals, where the fey had come to them.  Keffer had confirmed some of the stories, though he’d dismissed a few as warped by time and openly laughed at a couple others.  It was here she’d met him for the first time, knowing him then only as a friend of her brother’s.  He’d been in fully human guise then, until at Nacio’s urging he’d dropped the glamour in favor of his true fey form.  Nacio had laughed at the look on her face.

There was only the faintest hint of warning, like a tiny intake of breath before the wards activated around them.  Lines of magic glowed into life on the floor.

#

Keffer made a small, pained cry as a metal circle that had been sunken into the stone suddenly raised up around him and Thomas, the edge making contact with his foot.  Thomas pulled Keffer toward him and away from the metal.  Vula snarled as another such circle rose around her and Ileana.

“Keffer, are you alright?”  He had to support the satyr’s weight, and to his shock saw that Keffer’s foot looked as though it had been touched by a red-hot iron.  A bit of smoke actually rose from the injury.

“I will be.”  He groaned.  “Sidhe wards.”

Ileana was shaking her head.  “Give me a moment, I’ll take them back…”

“Not from within one, you won’t.”  She whirled at the sound of another voice.  A familiar figure leaned on the wall, watching them quietly.

“Nicolas.”  Thomas smiled before removing his helmet.  “Let —”

“Thomas.”  Nicolas’s eyes widened before his own face broke into a smile.  “You’re alive.”  His eyes went to Vula, then to Keffer, then back to Thomas.  “You’re alive and breaking into my castle alongside fey and…”  He walked a few steps toward Ileana.  “When the castle told me who had entered below, I almost didn’t believe it.  Except we never did find your body.”  He inclined his head.  “Ileana sai Bosque…”  He glanced at Thomas before glancing back at her.  “d’Laria.”  He shrugged.  “Welcome home.”

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