III

Trayn Aldarfro’s eyes opened once more. This time, they actually stayed that way for more than a minute or two.

Not that it was any particular improvement.

Trayn lay belly-down across a horse’s bony spine, tied firmly into place like a pack saddle. His head wound had finally stopped bleeding, although his hair was heavily caked with the blood he’d lost before it did. The broken ribs on his left side-at least two or three of them, he thought-sent grating stabs of anguish through him each time one of the horse’s hooves came down, and a pair of well-muscled dwarves hammered steadily away at the anvil behind his forehead. Still, taking everything which had happened into consideration, it was astonishing that he was as close to intact as he appeared to be. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t the same thing as being lucky to be alive.

He closed his eyes once more while dagger-sharp white flashes jounced through his brain. The pain was more than sufficient to disrupt his concentration, but he doubted he was close enough to the Academy for him to have reached it, anyway. He had only a minor gift for telepathy, and he was badly range-limited at the best of times, which these definitely weren’t. For that matter, he’d been close to the edge of his range when he and his companions had been attacked, and that had obviously been hours ago.

For that matter, he told himself grimly, it might very well have been days ago, the way I feel.

He tried to at least extend his senses far enough to tell how many of the others had also been taken prisoner, but the unpredictable, jagged bolts of pain made even that impossible. At least, he hoped it was because of the pain; he didn’t want to consider the other reasons he might not have been able to sense the presence of any of his friends.

He tugged surreptitiously at his bonds, and discovered-as he’d been certain would prove the case-that escape was impossible. Which left him free to concentrate on all the unpleasant possible explanations for why he found himself in his present predicament.

I should’ve paid more attention to Mistress Zarantha’s warnings, he thought bitterly. It just seemed so ridiculous. After all, who could be stupid enough to actually attack a mage academy? Especially one under the protection of Duke Jash?n himself?

He still didn’t know the answers to those questions, but he felt sinkingly certain he was going to find out. He didn’t expect to like those answers very much, either.

He felt his consciousness start to waver once again. In some ways, he would have been glad to pass back out, but that was cowardice speaking, and he set his teeth, calling upon the disciplines in which he’d been trained to push the blackness back. The lightheadedness eased after a moment, and he turned the same discipline to the task of overcoming the savage pain bursts of his headache.

The first attacks in the academy’s vicinity had seemed little more than coincidental. Zarantha of Jash?n was the eldest daughter of the Duke of Jash?n, and her father had helped her academy recruit a solid core of armsmen under the command of Colonel Tothas, Mistress Zarantha’s personal armsman since childhood. More to the point, perhaps, a third or more of the senior magi Zarantha had attracted as instructors were trained mishuki, among the most deadly practitioners of weaponless combat in all of Norfressa. For that matter, many of the magi possessed combat-grade gifts which even black sorcery would find difficult to overcome.

In the face of those considerations, it had seemed obvious that not even the hardiest raider would have deliberately set out to attack the academy. For that matter, it was unlikely the attackers had been working to any sort of deliberate plan. There was always some brigandage in the Empire of the Spear, especially in its southern provinces, where the Empire shared a common border with the Purple Lords. The Wild Wash Hradani on the Purple Lords’ western border periodically raided into the Empire, as well, and it was common knowledge (although seldom spoken of) that the half-elven Purple Lords themselves had a policy of subsidizing attacks on the fiefs of Spearman nobles who appeared to be growing too powerful. The Duke of Jash?n obviously fell into that category, as far as the Purple Lords were concerned, so no one had been particularly surprised when a village or two in his dukedom, the closest of them several days’ travel south of the academy, had been attacked.

Duke Jash?n’s armsmen had responded quickly, but the attackers had vanished like smoke, leaving only charred ruins, bodies, and missing people in their wake. Unfortunately, they’d also left very little in the way of clues which might have identified them. Nor had anyone been able to come up with a convincing theory for their motives. There hadn’t been that much worth stealing in the villages, and no one had gone raiding in the Empire for slaves since the last Shith Kiri Corsair attacks, fifty years ago. Besides, as far as anyone could tell, the captives who’d been taken had mostly been children, scarcely the sort of prisoners in which slavers would have been interested.

But the attacks had continued, sporadically, spaced out over a period of weeks, even months. Duke Jash?n had established nodal forces, placed to cover the towns and villages for whose defense he was responsible, but the raiders had avoided them with what appeared to be ludicrous ease. Tothas had extended his own patrols to protect the area immediately around the academy, but still the attacks had gotten through. No defense could be strong everywhere, and if the Duke and Tothas were prepared to protect the villages, then the attackers hit individual farms and freeholds.

The attacks had been infrequent, and the intervals between them unpredictable and often lengthy. At times, it had been tempting to believe they’d stopped completely, but they always resumed. Recently, a few clues had begun coalescing which suggested the Purple Lords were, indeed, behind it all, but there’d been nothing definite. Which explained why Trayn had been sent out with one of Tothas’ patrols. Although he was still only a journeyman, far from a master mage in proficiency or strength, he had a powerful gift for object reading. If they could get him to the site of an attack quickly enough for him to examine the aura the attackers had left behind, he might well be able to positively identify them. Failing that, he might at least have been able to determine where they were staging their attacks from.

It had all seemed completely straightforward to Trayn when it was explained to him. Only Mistress Zarantha had seemed particularly concerned. Which, given the fact that one of her minor gifts was precognition, should have been a sufficiently strong suggestion that he ought to be doing more worrying of his own, he acknowledged now.

“I know there’s no concrete evidence to support the theory,” the academy’s dark-haired, diminutive mistress had said, “but I’m still convinced that whoever is doing this is a direct threat to the Academy, as well. They may have been careful about staying safely outside our own grounds, but look at the pattern. They’ve hit villages and individual farms all around us, even when they must have known the targets they’d chosen risked interception by Father’s armsmen, as well as our own. I doubt very much that they’d hesitate for a moment about snapping up any mage they come across.”

“I understand, Mistress,” Trayn had replied. “And I promise we’ll be careful.”

He’d meant every word of it, too, but he’d also felt completely confident of his own security. Twenty-five trained, experienced armsmen, all armed with horsebows as well as light lances, would be more than sufficient to deal with the sort of outlaw rabble capable of carrying out such attacks.

Except that whoever these people were, they certainly weren’t anything as simple as “outlaw rabble.”

The ambush had been very carefully arranged, but even so, armsmen trained by Tothas should have been able to cut their way clear of it. They would have, too, without the sudden, unnatural fog which had blinded them at precisely the wrong moment. And without the hideous bolts of poison-green lightning which had come flashing through the fog to kill Darnoth, the patrol’s commander, and both of his senior sergeants without so much as a chance to scream.

Even while the fog had blinded Trayn and his companions, their attackers had moved and fought as if the morning remained daylight clear. Darnoth’s armsmen hadn’t stood a chance in the face of such a devastating disadvantage. Trayn had heard them fighting back desperately all about him, invisible through the sight-devouring grayness, and there’d been nothing at all he could do to help them. Despite his gifts, despite his own training as a mishuk, he’d been able to see nothing. He hadn’t even sensed the blow which struck him out of his own saddle until a fraction of an instant before it landed.

And now, he couldn’t even estimate how long ago it had happened.

Despair threatened his concentration, but he thrust it firmly aside. That much, at least, his training was equal to, and his efforts to suppress the pain slowly yielded at least partial success as the dwarves beating on the anvil in the center of his skull finally decided to put their hammers down. It didn’t do very much about the pain of his broken ribs, or his bruises, or the gnawing bite of his bonds, or the horse jouncing him about, but at least he was able to summon at least some of his own gifts, and he reached out cautiously, feeling for the auras of any of Darnoth’s men.

He sensed exactly nothing, and grief stabbed through him.

His eyes burned, but even as they did, a terrifying question burned through his grief. If none of the armsmen had been worth taking alive, why had he? What was so special about him that their ambushers had kept him alive?

He didn’t know . . . yet.

But he was grimly certain that he was going to find out.

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