VII

Phrobus! What was that?”

Garsalt’s voice was high-pitched, almost shrill, his exclamation so sudden that Trayn was startled into jerking his head up in surprise.

He was lashed across the horse once more, jouncing painfully along as his captors headed back out across the rolling grasslands. They were following the course of the stream at which they’d stopped earlier, and he’d found it hard to remain motionless and limp once or twice when the horse under him pushed its way through the lashing branches of low-growing scrub. Despite that, he’d remembered to continue to feign unconsciousness with what certainly appeared to have been success.

Until now.

“What do you think it was, Garsalt?” Tremala’s musical soprano demanded scornfully. “Let’s see now. We know Wencit is somewhere behind us; that was in front of us, and you know how fond the Bloody Hand’s always been of showing off. Hmmm . . . doesn’t that suggest at least one possibility to your teeny-tiny mind?”

“Yes, but-“

“Oh, grow a backbone, Garsalt! You did listen when the plan was explained to you, didn’t you? Perhaps you should have taken notes, too. Lots of them, using short, easily spelled words.”

“Of course I listened,” Garsalt shot back in an angry semi-whine. “But we weren’t supposed to meet him out here all by ourselves!”

“And we won’t,” Rethak put in. The shorter, dapper wizard sounded almost amused, Trayn thought. And then-without warning-a hard, ringing slap exploded across the back of the journeyman mage’s head, sending fresh cascades of stars sparkling painfully across his vision.

“Awake, I see, Master Aldarfro,” Rethak said nastily.

“Oh, he’s been awake for hours.” Tremala sounded amused, Trayn noticed, blinking on involuntary tears of pain. “I thought about mentioning it, but I decided a courteous host would let him get his rest. After all,” her voice turned crueler, “he’s going to need it, isn’t he?”

All three wizards laughed. It was a taunting, vicious sound, but Trayn heard more than amusement and anticipation in it. He heard the sound of small boys, whistling in the dark as they made their way through midnight woods.

There was no point pretending any longer, and he raised his head a bit higher, looking back at them. It was impossible to make out their expressions clearly in the darkness, but Trayn was a mage. Only a journeyman, perhaps, but still a mage. He didn’t need to see their expressions to know his original impression of their nervousness was accurate.

“If you knew he was awake, why didn’t you say something?” Garsalt demanded.

“Perhaps because I wanted to see if he really did have any ‘deadly powers of the mind.'” Tremala’s sugary-sweet tone turned the last five words into a sneer. “After all, I knew he was awake, so he was hardly going to surprise me with any sudden attacks. If he was going to kill anyone, well, I suppose it would have been one of you two, wouldn’t it?” Both her male companions turned to glower at her, and she laughed. “At least it would have let me kill two birds with one stone, as it were. It would have confirmed just how ‘deadly’ these magi are . . . and relieved me of putting up with at least one of you into the bargain.”

Neither of the others seemed to share her amusement, Trayn noticed, and managed not to flinch when Rethak’s open palm smashed across the back of his head once again.

“Stop that, Rethak,” Tremala said mildly. “You have better things to do than take out your anxieties on Master Aldarfro.”

“I don’t like magi,” Rethak grated.

“And you’re scared enough of Bahzell to need a new set of breeches, too, now that you know he and that outsized nag of his are in the vicinity,” Tremala half-sneered. “You really ought to do something more useful with all that energy, you know. Besides, we need Master Aldarfro . . . undamaged. For now.”

Trayn could have done without those last two words, but at least Rethak stopped hitting him in the head. Which, he decided, wasn’t actually all that much of an improvement when he found himself looking into Tremala’s dark eyes, instead. The sorceress smiled thinly at him, with the amused malice a cat reserved for the mouse under its claws.

“I wouldn’t get too comfortable, little mage,” she told him softly. “You may be too valuable to play games with at the moment, but, then, we weren’t sent to collect you for our amusement, either. Certain . . . parties have gotten a bit curious about these mind powers you magi seem to possess. And that rather irritating Council of Semkirk of yours is becoming a bit annoying. We don’t really mind all that much as long as you only make problems for your . . . ah, homegrown practitioners, shall we say? But you’re beginning to inconvenience us as well, so our superiors want a mage all their very own to play with. To study.” Her smile could have been used as a scalpel. “To . . . dissect.”

Trayn was astounded when he found himself continuing to meet her gaze without flinching.

“They must find us quite a bit more than ‘annoying’ if you’ve come all this way just to trap a journeyman mage who hasn’t even completed his studies yet,” he heard his own voice say. “I imagine your ‘superiors’ would have preferred someone a bit more experienced in the use of his powers. Or perhaps not.” He actually managed to bare his teeth at her. “Perhaps they thought it would be . . . safer all round to settle for a journeyman?”

Rethak,” Tremala said. Trayn had prepared himself for the fresh blow, but the sorceress’ voice stopped the wizard in mid-swing. She tilted her head to one side, regarding Trayn thoughtfully, then shrugged.

“You’ve a bit more spunk than I anticipated, Master Aldarfro,” she acknowledged. “And for all I know, there may actually be something to your theory. On the other hand, it’s not often we’re given the name of a specific individual they want to see. And I’m very much afraid,” she shook her head in mock sympathy, “that it often ends . . . badly for the individuals in question when we are.”

“I’m flattered.” He hoped she couldn’t tell how hard it was to keep his voice level when someone had just replaced the marrow of his bones with ice. “But isn’t this the point in all the really bad stories where the gloating villains tell their hapless victim all about their grand, complicated plans?”

“I believe it is,” she agreed. “I, on the other hand, have better things to do with my time. We’re about to have a few other guests we need to keep properly entertained, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you to your own devices. Do try to keep yourself amused.”

She smiled brightly at him, pressed with a heel, and went cantering off into the darkness.

“Don’t worry.” Rethak’s tone was ugly as Trayn let his neck muscles relax and pressed his face back into the side of the horse over which he was bound. “You’ll find plenty to keep you ‘entertained‘ where you’re going, mage. I’ll look forward to helping amuse you.”

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