Friday, May 24, 2013

For The Greatest Good -- Part XVI (Penny)

Part XVI – Account by Penny Kearney

  The first thing that registered when my thoughts awoke was the dull ache in my muscles from having lain in the same position for so long. I winced, pushing myself up and opening my eyes. The lucid awareness of my mind surprised me.
  How long have I slept?
  It had to have been some time in order for me to feel so rested. And Dana had not woken me. He must have fallen asleep somewhere, as well. Crawling between the deftly twisted branches that hid me in my little den, I hoped he’d found somewhere out of sight in case someone showed up and—
  I lifted my gaze, and froze.
  Someone had showed up. A lot of someones.
  Occupying what had been an empty copse, there stood – or sat or laid, quite at home in their surroundings – warriors both armed and armored for battle. Swords, spears, and shields reflected the sunlight pouring through the treetops with dull sheens, each soldier clad in leather armor and a cloak.
  Several of the men glanced up at my emergence, but none registered surprise, merely nodding in greeting or offering a smile as one of them rose and paced off into the trees. Collectively, they bore a somewhat similar resemblance to Dana in both dress and features.
  Wary, I rose to my feet, wishing I had any sort of weapon close at hand.  The warrior nearest me raised his hand in peaceful greeting, approaching my position. “Do not be alarmed, miss.” He said. “You’re safe here.”
  I eyed him, taking in his appearance in more detail. He was taller than Dana, with darker hair, navy eyes, and a faded scar along his chin. His tone, while even, had a more commanding quality to it rather than a soothing one. Still, he seemed pleasant enough, and an easy smile on his lips to offset the strength of authority in his demeanor towards me.
  “You’ll forgive me,” I replied. “But my experience with ‘safe’ hasn’t been an overly good one as of late.” I shifted my gaze, shivering once against a gust of wind that wound through the pine trees, laden with the sharp scent of sap. “You’re Dana’s men?”
  The group nodded in affirmation, while the speaker continued. “Aye. I’m John MacCullen, at your service, and to the order.”
  I glanced a partial smile at John MacCullen in acknowledgement of his introduction, but said nothing.
  “MacDonald should be along soon,” He said. “He was checking up with the rest of the men after we found you.”
  As if on cue, Dana appeared. His attire now resembled the other warriors’, and the hilt of the lance strapped to his back showed over his right shoulder. I folded my arms, relaxing at his approach, while John and the other men took their leave to attend to tasks a short distance away.
  “Glad to see you’re awake.” Dana nodded in satisfaction and motioned for me to sit. “I have provisions here for you, and water as well, if you’re up to it.”
  I hesitated, casting a glance about me, but finally did as Dana bade me and seated myself at the base of one of the nearby pine trees. Dana sat nearby, and handed me a hunk of bread, some dried fruit and meat, and a flask of water. I took them all, my stomach grumbling at me in spite of the forthcoming meal.
  He sat in silence for several minutes while I ate. That combined with the food and water helped me dust away the last few sleepy cobwebs still lurking in the corners of my thoughts.
  But some of the tension remained.
  Percy and Seph.
  “This is what’s left of my cohort;” Dana’s voice distracted my thoughts, and I listened, setting down the water flask. “Ross had sent a company after them, far too many in number to face alone. They pulled them back to the Jarran Marshes, used the terrain to fight them there. I’ve….about a third of my number left to offer…. Hopefully it should be enough for our use.”
  “When was this?”
  “A week and a half ago. Apparently, when you were attacked, that was only two thirds of Ross’s forces.”
  I leaned back against the tree. “Lovely.”
  “Aye… In any case, there are messengers up the mountain to watch Campbell’s fortress. So far there’s been no movement.”
  “What about the messenger sent to the people holding my brothers?” I shifted my gaze to watch his face.
  A faint smile traced his lips. “Having lost both contact and numbers, my cohort have made their way here according to how our people travel. Forest routs, masking their passage. However, not yesterday, they came upon a small company attempting to strike Northeast.”
  My breath caught, hope daring to ripple the surface of my heart.
  “In short,” He said. “The messenger is tied to a tree over that way.” He motioned back over his shoulder.
  The fear that had built up inside me, that I had done my best to ignore and press through, dissolved like the rush of an outgoing tide. My eyes closed, voice barely above a whisper. “Thank God…..”
  Dana continued. “Both our blades are taken. However, Ross has no idea where we are, what our state is, and thinks he has diminished our number.”
  I merely nodded, unable to speak without risking tears.
  They’re safe. They’re not going to be killed. 
  Dana fell silent. I could feel his gaze on me, but once again he allowed the quiet to stretch as I stilled my emotions.
  “Now…” He began again. “I believe you favor light blades, aye?”
  Looking up, I beheld the straightsword he extended towards me, holding the blade so the hilt faced me.  I drew a breath, wrapping my fingers around the hilt of the weapon, and rose to my feet.
  Dana released the blade. “How would you feel about a rescue mission?”
  “I’ve been thinking about it since the moment they entered that prison.”
  “Then if you command, O queen,” He smiled, handing me the sheathe and belt to match my weapon. “We will set forth within the hour for the prison in question.”
  “You know where it is?”
  He scratched the back of his neck. “Not at the moment, no. But our captured messenger does. He’s not spoken to me so far, but hopefully we should be able to convince him otherwise.”
  Sheathing my sword, I rested an expectant gaze on him.
  He nodded, stepping past me. “I had a feeling. This way.”
  I followed Dana through the trees, deeper into the surrounding forest, and fastened the sword belt around my damp waist. Underbrush snapped beneath my boots, fallen pine needles blanketed the ground, and on some distant tree, a songbird, unaware of the events below, warbled its tune into the wind. Dana’s men saluted as we passed them. Glancing back once, I noticed MacCullen trailing us. I guessed because he reported to Dana directly, and thus stayed nearby.  Admittedly, being surrounded by these warriors from the North, in spite of our current situation, did well to ease my mind, though it reminded me of my own force, all massacred by Set.
  Three trees came into sight, and Dana slowed. To each tree was tied a man, bruised, gagged, and garbed in the livery of Ross. Several of Dana’s men stood on guard near them, but as we approached, MacCullen ordered them to stand down, and they moved away a few paces. The sight of these three messengers coiled the warmth of anger around my heart. These men, who would condemn my brothers to death in service of a tyrant.
  Stepping forward, Dana pulled the gag from the center prisoner.
  Freed, the man spat, dull brown eyes flashing. “Here to try again, O noble one? I told you before, I’ll say nothing!”
  Dana just smiled. “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t be asking you any questions. Not now, at least.”
  Standing just behind Dana, I looked the prisoner up and down. His gaze shifted to me, and a leering smile curled his lips. “You expect her to make me talk? You’re an idiot. Though I could think of a few ways that might convince me…”
  Fury seethed into Dana’s demeanor in an instant. He stepped forward, fist clenched. I grasped his arm.  A long moment passed, Dana’s glare boring into the maddeningly smug expression of the messenger, but finally he drew a long, deep breath and backed off.
  “As you wish, your highness.” He murmured.
  The messenger chuckled. “Look at that, just like a puppy. She must have a proper hold on you, that one.”
  Several rather uncomfortable methods of interrogation drifted through my mind. This fool really had no idea what I felt capable of doing right now. Only my conscience restrained me, but even that was coming close to being pushed far enough to snap.  “He’s a puppy with a fairly nasty bite. One I won’t prohibit him from demonstrating if you aren’t careful.”
  “Or what? He’ll slap me? Drive a knee in, maybe? Or, if I’m lucky, give me a taste of that little lance of his?” His smile vanished. “Do your worst, dark hair, I’m no hillbound rebel.”
  “That much I can see.”
  He narrowed his eyes, seeming to scrutinize me more closely, now. Dana had moved back, so I stood right in front of the messenger, and returned his gaze without reaction.
  “One with a brain, then.” He said at last. “Figures that one of you would have one. Doesn’t make any difference. There’s nothing you can do that….”
  Something flickered behind his eyes in that split second of hesitation.
  “You won’t get anything.” He stated. I could see him begin to close up.
  “What’s your name?” I asked, tilting my head a fraction.
  This time he didn’t have a comeback. He just glared and looked away.
  I shrugged. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll be forced to make one up.”
  “I hope that’s not too hard for you.” He muttered.
  “No, I’m good with names.”
  “Not much else, though,” The messenger snorted, condescending to look at me again. “Judging by your success on the battlefield.”
  That remark cut me far more than I let on, the face of Rex and my other brave soldiers flashing through my mind. “Well… “ I tapped the rope holding him securely to the pine tree. “I’m not exactly the one tied to a tree at the moment.”
  “Says the one whose entire army is dead in a field a few leagues yonder…”
  “And the one whose brothers you were about to sentence to death.”
  I doubted he fully grasped the meaning of my statement. My conscience took another step towards the edge. I was just about through trying kinder methods to convince this man to talk.
  “I don’t care.” He snapped. “Worst you can do is kill me. Torture, hah. Apparently your ‘noble order’ doesn’t allow that. But even if you do…. There’s nothing that will work.”
  I stepped closer, dropping my tone, gaze sharp. “Everyone has a weakness.”
  His expression hardened.  “You aren’t it.”
  “Oh, no.” I managed a dry smile, my gaze flickering meaningfully towards the messenger’s companion.
   While I gained no reaction from the man before me, his comrade sagged against his bonds, brow glistening with sweat. The cold light of fear shone clearly in his eyes.
  Dana walked up and removed the gag on the second man, who cried, “Kill us, take us with you, anything! We can’t go back, or even forward, as failures. He’ll….he’ll punish us….”
  My expression cleared. Finally, some leverage. I stepped back from the first man, who lowered his head, the same glint of fear passing behind his eyes before he could hide it.
  “Who will punish you?”I asked, addressing neither man in particular, and even giving the third a brief glance, though he showed even less indication of compliance.
  No one spoke. A kind of invisible terror seemed to have taken hold of them, sealing their silence, until Dana demanded of the prisoner before him, “Who! Tell me!”
  Both men flinched under Dana’s intense gaze. All arrogance dissolved by apprehension, the first messenger murmured a response.
  “He’s looking at him.”
  Dana blinked, and then pulled back, realization widening his eyes in surprise and sympathy. “You mean….Set.”
  I nodded to myself, suspicion confirmed.
  “He can burn you, just by lookin’ at you!” The messenger’s skin paled near white, his tone a haunted, terrified whisper. “Gets in your head, voice echoing round and round and round…. All the while stabbing like daggers, but you can’t do nothing about it! Nothing!”
  My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the sensation of Set’s thoughts invading mine in the throne room when he’d searched my mind for my Gift.
  The messenger’s gaze became distant. “Even now I can hear it… laughing… smiling….. Make it stop….” His voice rose.  “Make it stop, please!”
  His cry echoing through the treetops, he thrashed against his bonds, desperate to tear free and escape. Not a sound came forth in his struggle, as if he were reliving some horrific memory. I motioned to Dana’s men standing nearby, even as Dana himself grasped the messenger’s shoulders, but before they took more than two steps, the messenger uttered a piercing, lone cry, and fell limp.
  Pressing his hand against the man’s neck, Dana announced, “He’s.... dead.” Shock rang in his tone.
  My lips parted in utter surprise. It was then I realized how fast my heart was racing, and the curved chill that threaded through me.
  Was that all Set’s doing? Are these the kinds of things he’s capable of?
  “You see?” The first messenger spoke again, bitterness in his tone. “Sooner or later, we’re dead anyway. It’d be almost a mercy if you killed us now, before we end up like him. If you don’t do what Set says….. he takes your mind. And with it….your life.”
  In spite of the dread hanging thick in the air, I got an idea. “And what is it he says?”
  I focused my gaze, and my thoughts, straining to find and grasp some form of connection to his mind. The strange sensation whispered through the back of my mind, until it caught, like a briar snagging on fabric. It felt different than when I’d connected with Dana, somehow rougher, and instead of conscious thoughts came images, fast and muddled. But clear in the blur of recollections was the image of Set, staring into the man’s eyes in with the same drilling, hypnotic, maddening stare. Tightening my jaw, I forced myself to maintain the link. The messenger had to give up the location of the prison sooner or later…
  “…go North,” Set’s voice curled into my mind out of the messenger’s memory. “Until you reach the Western woods, and travel East through them until you reach the downs. From there, South, and you will find the prison within a small copse of trees. Order them to take….”
  The connection in my head shifted, and no longer was Set looking into the man’s eyes, but mine.
  Peircing. Pain. Fear.
  “I can see you, Kearney.” His voice clawed. “And you had better start running.”
  With a cry, I snapped the connection, jerking back and clutching my head. The unbearable throbbing hammered my skull and for a moment it seemed my whole head would burst.
  “Penny!” Dana’s voice sounded broken to my ears. “What’s wrong?”
  The pain faded, draining away and leaving remnants of a dull ache, which gradually dissipated, as well. Now all I felt was the thumping of my own pulse running wildly through my veins.
  “I know where to go.” I rasped. “We have to leave now. He knows where we are.”
  “What?! How did he find out?”
  “I don’t know! Just get everyone ready, and tell them to follow me.”
  He motioned to his men listening nearby as I brushed past. They ducked into the shrubbery, calling out orders.
  “What about these two?” He gestured to the remaining captives.
  I paused, looking back. The spurs of urgency eased a little as I managed to relax enough to consider Dana’s question.
  The leader met my gaze with sunken eyes. “Just kill us. Please.”
  Another idea.
  You’re an idiot, Penny.
  Yeah, for giving away our one advantage. I have to try and make up for that.
  Just don’t make it worse.
  Drawing several breaths, I paced back towards the trees. “How long will it take your men to mobilize, Dana?”
  “Less than half an hour.” He replied. “We need to wait for our advance scouts to return.”
  There’s time.
  “Then give me a moment. But stay nearby, in case I need your assistance.”
  He nodded, giving orders to three men who’d come to receive them from him, and walked a few paces closer to observe.
  Once again I stood before the messenger.
  This had better work.

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