The young monk gazed steadily into the flickering heart of the
campfire. Slowly he extended a hand and, still staring at the flame,
curled his outstretched fingers into the palm of his hand. He reached
out his other arm, opened both his hands, and repeated the motion,
soundlessly calling into his mind the images in the center of the blaze,
practicing the nightly meditations that bound him further to the Spirits
Willingly the flame responded to its disciple, allowing him to
perceive first his immediate surroundings, then, gradually, the areas
farther out. He first watched the campsite, noting his sleeping
companions Leah and Cyrus quietly entwined in each other's arms. Slowly
he extended his consciousness beyond the tranquil encampment into the
forest beyond the clearing they had chosen. Swaying, creaking pine
trees...towering oaks heavy with leaves ready to fall...somewhere a
doe resting with her twin young...
Then, suddenly, an onslaught of bitter cold, ripping at his bones,
tearing him away from the supporting embrace of the fire, battering away
at his consciousness, ravaging his soul. There was a hiss and then a
dull crack as the flames of the campfire froze solid and shattered on
the ground. Reeling from the shock of being torn from his
flame-projection so abruptly, Thaeth tried to stagger to his feet.
Snatching arms were there to grasp him and yank him away, their vicious
movements silenced by a bone-shattering iciness that dared even atoms to
try to shudder. Still flailing in his mind to shake off the stupor
brought on by the cold, he tried to channel his own life-energy into the
heat that would keep him alive...but with no result. Exhausted from
trying to resist the frost that slashed at him, Thaeth finally slipped
into hellish unconsciousness, clawing to bring a last breath of warm air
into his lungs...
One of the two priestesses carrying him signalled to her companion to
lower the spell that had incapacitated the cleric. "Enough," she
cautioned. "We don't want to kill him, and we can't awaken those two,"
she continued, gesturing to the monk's slumbering companions. "The
sleep-dweomer can't last forever. We need to bring this one back to the
High Lady." She let go of Thaeth's sagging body with one hand, took
hold of a bright blue jewel which hung from her neck, and muttered a few
words. A glowing white-blue spot of light appeared and grew into a
portal hanging in empty space. "Quickly, now," the woman snapped.
"There's not much time."
"But why not just take the others, too?" asked the second woman.
"Orders," retorted the first. "Let's go." She and her companion
dragged their quarry through the glowing gateway and into the void
beyond it. Slowly, the passage closed behind them, growing smaller and
smaller until it again became a blue-white dot and finally disappeared.
Still locked in their enchanted sleep, Leah and Cyrus slept on.
* * * * * * *
A gentle sort of
sensation...soft hands caressing her hair
and shoulders...a whisper in her ear, "Wake up, darling..."
By this time, she was almost awake, but as usual, she waited for his
kiss as her cue to yawn, stretch, and finally wake up. It came, a
gentle brush across her lips, and she slowly let her ice-blue eyes open,
adjusting to the bright light of morning. She smiled, stretched out her
arms, and threw them around him. "Good morning, Cyrus," she murmured
He returned the hug and carefully lifted her to a sitting position.
"Good morning, love," he replied. "Better start getting ready. We've
got a ways to go before breakfast."
She made a face. "Breakfast where?"
"The Crimson Dragon Inn, if I remember right."
Leah sighed. "Well...I suppose I can wait." She dug around in the
pocket of her swordsman's blouse and pulled out a short strip of
leather, then used it to tie back her waist-length auburn hair. She
stood up, stretched again, and looked around. When she turned back to
him, her face wore a quizzical look. "Where's Thaeth?"
Cyrus stood up and glanced into the trees. "I'm not sure. Maybe he
went hunting for something to restock the food pack."
Leah narrowed her eyebrows and held her chin in one hand, trying to
think. "No...that wouldn't make sense. He's a monk. I doubt he even
knows how to use a bow in the first place. If anyone were hunting,
anyway, it'd be you with your crossbow."
"True," Cyrus admitted. "All right, any other ideas?"
She thought for a moment. "Well, actually...no. Think we should try
to call for him?"
"No, not really. I don't know what it would attract. I don't know if
I want to know."
She paced around the campsite, scuffing dust from the ground. "Damn.
All we can do is wait, then. Even more time to wait till breakfast,"
she muttered. Just then, her boot kicked up a small hard crystal-like
object which hit the ground and splintered again. She instantly knelt
down and picked up a shard to examine it.
It was a sharp, mostly-clear piece of material, like glass, only
colder. As she held it up to the light, she saw glints of ice-blue and
orange-red flashing off its surface and buried within its depths.
Inspecting even closer, she saw tiny traces of vapor rising from its
surface -- the stone was evaporating away. As it began to disintegrate,
it became colder and colder, burning her fingers with its iciness. It
hissed menacingly, freezing her hands, and she tossed it away,
"What is it?" asked Cyrus, looming over her shoulder.
"I don't know," she told him. "Whatever it is, though, I don't like
He stepped back for a moment and looked around. "Leah?" he said.
"Look over here."
She followed his gaze and saw similar chunks lying in a trail across
the grass, toward the campfire. Together they scrambled to the fire and
stared at it in disbelief. The half-burned logs were rimed with frost;
some were shattered from within. Shards of the same blue-iridescent
stones surrounded the dead fire like shrapnel from an explosion.
"Whatever happened here, it got incredibly cold incredibly fast,"
observed. "I don't know what it would be, though."
Leah clenched his hand tightly, suddenly feeling very vulnerable. "I
think I know," she said, slowly and quietly. "And I don't think I want
to find out."
"What?" he asked, looking around. "Who could turn a campfire into
solid ice that quickly?"
"Someone I once knew," she replied softly. "Someone I thought I had
* * * * * * *
They left the campsite as fast as
they could, scattering the remains of
the frozen fire and dividing Thaeth's belongings among them. "Forget
breakfast at the Crimson Dragon," said Leah. "We'll forage along the
way, but we have to head north. It's the only place he could be."
"I still don't understand who could have done it," Cyrus said,
arranging his backpack and crossbow comfortably and picking up his
staff. "Why all the secrecy?"
"I'm not sure if I'm ready to explain it yet," she told him. "And I
still don't know why it's happened...it still doesn't make much
sense. I promise, though, I'll explain once I've figured out the best
plan of action."
"All right," he answered. "If you need time, that's fine with me.
North, you said?"
She nodded, and he took the lead, instinctively plotting a course
led as close to due north as was possible amid the trees and bracken of
the Torenash Forest.
Time, she said to herself, is one thing I'm afraid we don't
have much of.
There's only one person it could be, she thought as they
walked. It has to be Rhonwen. Nobody else has that kind of power.
But why Thaeth? I was right there sleeping. What could they possibly
want with him?
And it's my fault that they took him, too...if he'd never come
me, she'd never have had any cause to hurt him.
No. Stop thinking like that, Leah. She took him, yes, that's true,
but there was nothing you could have done about it, and he chose to come
along. It was his own rational decision. Would it have been better
never to have left?
Of course not.
I'll go back to free him, but I'll be damned if I'm going back to
They made their way through the foliage as the sun crept across the
sky, turning morning into late morning and finally noon. "Can we stop?"
he asked as they entered another clearing. "I know we've got to
conserve rations, but I haven't seen anything remotely edible yet, and
the way we're going, there's no inn till we reach Glacian Hold, and no
one in their right mind would stop there, even for a bite to eat."
She sighed. "You're right...I'd like to keep going, but we need food
if we want to keep a good pace. All right, break out the rations,
They sat down at the edge of the ring of trees, and Cyrus took from
his pack two small leather-wrapped parcels. He handed one to Leah, and
they opened the packages and started in on them. "Could you at least
tell me where we're going?" he asked, swallowing a bite of hardtack.
"Glacian Hold," she answered, and he almost coughed up the bread.
"Why in all hells are we going there?" he demanded. "What would the
witches there want with Thaeth?"
"I don't think it's him they want," she answered miserably. "It's --"
There was a vicious crack-sound as a branch from a tree above them
snapped and fell to earth, shattering into a million icy pieces.
"Quick! Get up!" Leah shrieked, scrambling to her feet. Her swords
were out in a heartbeat, and she took up a fighting stance as six women
robed in glittering white advanced into the clearing. A crossbow bolt
whizzed past her from behind and struck one of them in the shoulder, and
the woman fell back screaming. She looked back and saw Cyrus
frantically trying to reload. "There's no time!" she yelled. "Get in
close so they don't have room to get any spells off!" With that, she
set her blades forward and locked her elbows at her sides, then charged
the nearest sorceress.
The woman grinned evilly and withdrew from her sheath a crystalline,
blue-tinged sword of her own.
Oh, hells, Leah said to herself, pulling up short.
As the white-robed woman advanced, Leah drew her into a complicated
defensive pattern. Each blow she struck weakened her opponent's
position, and as the woman began to falter, Leah launched a right cross
with her sword hilt straight into the Divisator's jaw. The woman fell
backward, unconscious, and Leah ducked down to shatter the crystal
blade. A split second later, a gout of ice speared directly into a tree
ahead of her, and a voice from behind uttered a nasty curse. She spun
around on all fours and saw a second sorceress preparing another spell
to fire at her. Immediately, she sprinted a few steps forward and
caught the woman with a crushing elbow to the ribs. As the witch
doubled over, Leah pounded her in the chest and heard a muffled crunch.
"My aumin!" the woman cried, staggering backward as if she'd
been hit with an arrow. "You shattered my Source!" Weaponless and
defenseless, she fled into the forest, leaving Leah with four more
enemies to face.
The four remaining witches had all beset Cyrus, who was rapidly
ground as he tried to fend them off with his quarterstaff. One of them
already had the immense scout in a headlock, hanging from his neck a
good foot and a half off the ground and slowly choking him. Two
Divisators dodged the blows from his staff as they tried to come close
enough to use their swords, and the fourth was standing a few feet away,
performing some sort of ritual. Leah skirted around the Divisators and
kicked the first woman in the small of the back. She gasped and toppled
to the ground, and Cyrus staggered backward and away from the
Divisators. Leah rushed to his side, and they each took on one
Leah rapidly lost awareness of the area outside the melee, absorbing
herself in the dance of the blades. Every thrust met with a wicked
parry and riposte; she found herself having to change her footing every
few seconds, trying to keep up with the woman's vicious slices.
"Leah! To the right!"
The voice was Cyrus's, and she reacted instinctively, spinning right
and ducking a swing she hadn't known was coming from the woman whom she
thought had a broken back. The blade came in again, and this time she
parried it with her shortsword and skewered the woman with the
broadsword in her other hand.
Before she had a chance to recover from overbalancing herself in the
lunge, though, the pommel of a sword came down hard on the back of her
head, and she fell sprawling, barely conscious. Head swimming, she
couldn't even find the coordination to stand as the sorceress opened a
shining blue portal and the Divisators dragged Cyrus through it. The
ethereal disc shrank back to nothingness, leaving her alone in the
eerily silent glen.
It was only then that she finally fell unconscious, tears streaming
from her eyes.
* * * * * * *
Leah crouched in the shadows behind the walls of Glacian Hold,
clutching her aumin and watching the Divisators who guarded the
crystalline gates. She pulled her robes around her for warmth, checked
to make sure her satchel was on securely, then whispered a few words
over the aumin and pointed at the far wall. A few stones cracked from
the intense cold, causing little damage but a loud noise that attracted
the guards' attention, and for just a few seconds, they left the gate
It wasn't much time, but it was enough for Leah to slip out the gate
and into the woods beyond.
She traveled quietly, listening all around for any sign of soldiers
following her, but she heard nothing but the unfamiliar sounds of the
Torenash at night. As soon as she was a good six or seven miles away,
she stopped and took off her aumin. A quick search turned up a
fist-sized rock which would do the job nicely. She held the stone in
one hand and the chain of the aumin in the other, then swung the
amulet at the rock. A slight pain shot through her head as the gemstone
split into countless tiny shards, but it fled as quickly as it had
arrived. She swept the pieces into a little pile, then dug a hole and
buried the remains of the amulet.
Picking up her backpack, she continued into the night...
* * * * * * *
Leah awoke with a start. How long had she been out? She tentatively
reached a hand up to the back of her head and felt the lump that had
risen there, then winced. That was a bump that would be there for a
She had dreamed while she was unconscious, dreamed of her escape from
Glacian Hold four years ago. Breaking an aumin destroys the
power of whoever belongs to it, she thought. It breaks the link. I
thought breaking my link would sever me from Rhonwen. Maybe I was
wrong; maybe I have to break both halves.
All right. I can do that.
She stood up, shook her head groggily, and picked up her swords. She
cleaned them off on the grass, re-sheathed them, then recovered what she
could from the packs she and Cyrus had carried.
Then she was off northward again, north to Cyrus, Thaeth, and Glacian
* * * * * * *
Just like I remembered it, thought Leah, gazing at the
from within the cover of the trees. Same towers, same walls...same
She set her pack down, adjusted her swordbelt, and walked calmly to
front gate. She stopped a few meters away from the castle itself, then
looked up at the twin turrets and the top of the wall. I am here.
But I will not stay here. Not for long. I am my own person. Not
She took a deep breath. "I am here to see Rhonwen ab Mathau!" Leah
shouted to whoever was there to hear. Seconds later, the front gate was
open, and she was flanked by Divisators with pikes pointing dangerously
close. She held her hands out in front of her as even more women poured
out of the gates, ready to fend off the intruder. "I demand parley with
Rhonwen ab Mathau!"
"Who are you?" snarled one of the guards, jabbing her with the blunt
end of a pike. "What do you want with the High Lady?"
"I must speak with her," Leah growled back. "She's stolen...
something of value to me."
"The High Lady answers to no one!" shouted another guard. "Tell the
truth, now! Why do you come here armed?"
"To defend myself from the likes of you," Leah snapped, shoving the
woman away. "Let me talk to Rhonwen ab Mathau, damn your eyes!"
"Why, you little brat!" snarled the guard. "One more word from you,
and I'll --"
"That's enough, Dalia," came a voice from atop the castle wall. All
eyes turned in the direction of the new speaker -- a tall, pale woman
hair halfway between blonde and grey. Like the rest of her compatriots,
she too wore the soft, white, faintly glittering robes of a sorceress of
Glacian Hold. "This is between myself and our new guest." She looked
down at the prisoner and smiled. "Hello, Leah."
Leah crossed her arms over her chest and met the woman's stare.
"It has been quite a while since last you visited us, daughter."
"Since I ran away, you mean. Don't mince words."
Rhonwen chuckled. "At least you have come back to us. Should we kill
the fatted calf now?"
"Don't set your hopes too high. I'm here to reclaim what you stole,
and then I'll be leaving again."
"Stole? Why, whatever do you mean?" asked Rhonwen mockingly.
"Thaeth and Cyrus, Mother. Your Divisators took Thaeth while we
then kidnapped Cyrus -- after almost killing me. They're not yours,
Mother. Let them go."
"Well, if they're not mine, then they're certainly not yours either.
That's a bit hypocritical of you, don't you think?"
"You're putting words in my mouth. As usual. Of course they're not
mine. They are their own people, and I demand you let them go."
"But of course, my dear! For a price, anyway. Always for a price."
"They're not items to be bought and sold--they're human beings, and I
demand you let them go."
"Ah, but who has them now? Oh yes -- I do. How silly of me to
forget." She chuckled. "The price is quite small. Call it an
exchange, if you will. You stay here -- and they're free to go."
Realization dawned on Leah's face. "You kidnapped them as bait to
bring me here, didn't you? You've wanted me back ever since I ran away
four years ago. I'm your child, Mother -- not your property! You have
no claim on me any more!"
"You are by birth a sorceress of Glacian Hold," replied Rhonwen
calmly. "That in itself is claim enough."
"Not if I reject my birthright!" Leah snapped back. "I destroyed my
Source as soon as I possibly could. I'm a swordmistress now, no mage.
Not by any stretch of the imagination."
"A birthright is a birthright. It is your duty."
"The only duties I have are the ones I give myself! No other living
being has the right to lay such a burden on me!"
Rhonwen only smiled. "However, my dear, you are in a very poor
position for bargaining." She made a quick motion with her left hand.
Two guards ran to the gates and pulled them the rest of the way open,
and Leah stifled a gasp at what she saw.
Two blocks of ice stood just inside the gate, each one about seven
tall. Suspended in each was a person, caught out of time in a ghastly
rictus: Thaeth frozen in one, and Cyrus prisoned in the other. Leah
closed her hands about her sword-hilts and rushed at the blocks, but
guards caught her on each side before she could reach them and held her,
"My offer stands," Rhonwen continued. "You stay here and they go
free. Or, you continue along your way and leave your friend and lover
as captives with me."
"I'm no use to you any more!" cried Leah. "Without an aumin I'm no
good as a sorceress. You're only doing this out of spite!"
"Perhaps I am," the woman grinned. "That, however, is of no
consequence. You have heard my offer, and there will be no other.
Choose wisely, now. Would you really want to leave your companions to
such a fate?"
"There is another way," said Leah.
"I don't have to listen to it," replied Rhonwen.
"Yes, you do. The hlethfeir. The duel of honor."
For a moment the self-satisfied smile left Rhonwen's face, but just
quickly it crept back onto her features. "You, challenge me? An
untrained brat duel the High Lady of Glacian Hold?"
"The challenge stands. And, as challenger, I claim my right to name
prize. Should I win, Thaeth and Cyrus and I all go free."
"And I, as the challenged, name my prize. Should I win, you will
remain here until the end of your days. You will also cease the study
of the sword -- but only after you have slain both Thaeth and Cyrus with
your own weapons."
Leah swallowed. If she rejected Rhonwen's winner-demand, the woman
every right to refuse the challenge. It was a risky decision...but
her only other option was Rhonwen's original "bargain." She tried not
to look at the immense ice blocks, and formed her face into an
expressionless mask. "Agreed."
"Done, then!" shouted Rhonwen. "Guards, escort my daughter into the
courtyard. We shall fight the duel there." She disappeared back into
one of the turrets as the crowd of sentries shoved Leah before them past
the enormous ice-cubes and inside the walls of Glacian Hold.
A small square outlined by wooden posts stood in the center of the
courtyard. Leah forced her hands to stop trembling as she stood alone
in the enclosure, a fierce breeze ruffling her hair. No, not alone
exactly: dozens of onlookers thronged the patch of grass where she
awaited Rhonwen. She had plenty of company physically; but every
spectator stood ready to cheer her opponent, wanted to see her blood
spilled on the grass, expected her to lose.
That, however, was not an option.
A high, cackling shout went up from the crowd as Rhonwen emerged from
the corner tower. Leah clutched her swordhilts, then released them;
clutched, then released; working out the nervousness which sought to
betray her movements and sacrifice the fight to her mother. Almost
casually, Rhonwen made her way through the morass of women to stand in
the opposite end of the makeshift arena. "My daughter," she announced,
"are you certain you wish to continue this charade? It would be much
less painful if you simply conceded defeat now."
Leah shook her head. "No. You know what I came for. I'll leave with
Cyrus and Thaeth, or you'll bury me here. Once again: You have no
right to my life. Only I do. And there's nothing you can do to stop
The woman simply grinned. "We shall see." With that, she pointed and
hurled a glassy bolt of ice straight at Leah.
Only instinct could have screamed "Duck!" at her, but whatever the
cause, Leah hit the ground stomach-first an instant before the icy shaft
lanced over her head. A moment later, she was up and running, ducking
and weaving randomly to confuse Rhonwen and keep her from establishing a
firm firing pattern. One shot flew straight at her, but this time she
saw it and leaped up, executing a perfect back flip into the wind to
keep her balance when she landed. Her feet came down lightly, and she
suddenly found herself scrabbling for a foothold on an arena floor that
was now covered in a sheet of ice. The stiff leather soles of her boots
had little traction with the slick surface, and her legs splayed out
awkwardly, dumping her on her face. Expecting a barrage of freezing
darts to skewer into her at any second, she struggled to push herself to
one of the side-posts of the arena.
Rhonwen's rapid castings had tired her, though, and Leah saw her
panting at the other end of the square, trying to regain enough energy
for a final incapacitating blow. She gripped her swords tightly, then
plunged them into the sheet of ice, using them like ski poles to drag
herself to the side. It worked much more quickly than trying to crawl
had, and she lay on her stomach on the ice with her legs tucked firmly
against a post. She held her blades out in front of her for
streamlining, faced Rhonwen, and shoved off from the post.
The wind whipped at her face as she careened across the ice. The
in her right hand kicked up from the turbulence, and a poorly aimed ice
bolt snapped it off halfway. That could have been my head was all Leah
had time to think before she crashed into Rhonwen at full force. She
grabbed the woman's shoulders to pull herself up, then snapped the
aumin off her neck before Rhonwen had a chance to reorient
herself. She swung the amulet at the nearest post, and it bounced off
"Little fool," sneered Rhonwen. "Did you not expect that the
aumin of the High Lady would be infinitely more powerful--more
durable--than that of a seventeen-year-old apprentice?" She snatched
for the necklace, caught the chain, and tried to jerk it away from
Leah. They sawed back and forth, each trying to gain possession of the
little amulet -- and finally the chain snapped under the stress. The
pendant sailed into the air, and both mother and daughter leapt to their
feet. Rhonwen's long, thin arms stretched far above Leah's reach...
...but Leah still had one sword left.
The aumin glinted, catching the dying light of the setting
as it spiraled earthward. Rhonwen gave a cry of triumph as it fell
toward her hands -- but it turned into an anguished scream as Leah's
other blade intercepted the tumbling amulet, cleaving it in two perfect
halves. Rhonwen tottered wildly and fell to the ice, clutching her head
and screaming. The destroyed aumin landed a few yards away,
unneeded, and Rhonwen's agonized howling subsided into a low moan and
The entire crowd leaned closer, stymied at the defeat of its leader,
and a disturbing tremor began to rumble through the audience.
"Kill me," whispered Rhonwen.
"They call for my death. A leader with no power is useless to them.
"No. Your life is your own. I can't stop you from ending it yourself,
but I won't kill you."
"You murdered one of my Divisators in the forest. You can kill me."
"She was a direct threat to me. You can hurt me no longer. There is
no reason to. Not any more."
"My minions will hunt you down. Power or no power, I will find a way
to own you again."
"Until they choose a new High Lady. Then you will have no one to
"And then I'll learn the art of the sword, or of the assassin, and
hunt you again."
"And I'll defeat you again. But I refuse to kill you."
"If you don't, I'll find you and destroy you. And I will laugh as I
it," hissed Rhonwen.
"I could, you know. It would be easy -- just slide the blade between
your ribs and watch you die. I must admit, it would be just revenge for
all you've put me through, both now and when I was a child." A grim
smile crept across Rhonwen's face, but Leah's remained completely
impassive. "But I won't. It would be so easy. But if I did...it'd
be just what you wanted me to do." The emotionless mask finally slipped
from her face, and a look of near-regret clouded her features.
"It's too late, Mother. Goodbye." She re-sheathed her remaining
sword, then turned and walked away. The crowd of sorceresses converged
upon the prostrate Rhonwen, but Leah held her head rigidly forward,
refusing to look. There was a wail, a ripping noise, a hiss like that
of hot water splashing onto ice, and then silence.
When Leah destroyed the aumin, the blocks of ice had begun to melt --
their magic preservation denied them -- and Thaeth and Cyrus now stood
ankle-deep in puddles of water that were quickly flowing away into the
frozen ground. Leah broke into a run when she saw them, and Cyrus swept
her into a crushing yet tender hug. A few minutes later, they finally
let go and looked around. The entire citadel appeared deserted, except
for a small bloodsmear toward one side of the arena. Leah turned away,
shuddering, and Cyrus put a comforting arm around her shoulder. Thaeth
moved ahead of them and pushed the gate back open, and the three of them
made their way back into the Torenash Forest to resume their journey.
About the author, Meredith Monaghan:
Meredith Monaghan is a creative writing major at the University of
Houston, where she enjoys defying her professors' mandates against
writing speculative fiction. She edits the fanzine
Dreams", and has too many
projects on deck to count, from short stories to screenplays to novels
to comic books. She lives in Houston, with her
husband, a roommate and not surprisingly, a plethora of cats.