Chapter 7

A dark-haired woman hid just on the other side of a hallway awning and held her breath as the men passed by. They were no doubt looking for Balin and the monster that had attacked the girl. She was certain they would not find either. The former owed his escape to her, and the latter simply did not exist at that moment. As their footfalls sounded and their lanterns clattered, she willed the shadows to hide her. They passed by shouting and running without noticing her. There were only two people in this Landforsaken castle that would remember her. But she could not be too careful. Nothing could stop her from this last task.

When all was quiet again, she crept through the silence of the unlit corridor. She was in the center when the moonlight hit her from the window, and she heard the sound of iron boots. Her heart raced, and after a moment's pause, she ran from the approaching sound of iron on stone. She wanted to cry; she wanted to fall like some half-witted maiden.

Running didn't matter anyway. He caught her before she even had a chance at escape, and his arms encircled her waist tightly. She could not see his face, but she felt his tears in her hair as he took in its familiar smell like it was water.

"Why did you run?"

"I was running from you."

"No you weren't." His laugh was only a silent shudder, and his lips brushed the top of her head.

She choked as she fought her own bitter laughter. "Are they watching you right now?"

He shook his head as his chin rested in her hair. She let herself relax, and his arms kept her from melting to the ground. She still did not turn to face him. She only closed her eyes and wished she could stay there forever.

"Will they be watching soon?" she whispered.

A nod.

Her voice was barely audible, "As we planned then?" She did not want him to hear. But he heard, and there was another nod.

She drew the dagger from her cloak and plunged it into the man behind her and drew it back out with a sick sound like wet mud sticking to a shoe. He crumpled and fell to the ground without even a gasp, only a silent shuddering. Now she faced him and the tears came. She helped him sit up, propping his back against the wall. He still shuddered, but he smiled and took her hand. "Thank you."

She cried like a child, but her normal disgust for the emotion couldn't stop the tears.

"Go now." He squeezed her fingers as he shivered. His hand was turning cold in hers, and she clutched it between her own as if she could warm it again.

His life was slipping away through her fingers, yet she shook her head as her pale face grew even paler.

"You were brave," he assured her.

She hugged him close, not minding the blood but being careful not to harm him further. "I was a coward. We were both cowards." The scent on his robes made her think of kinder times. Yet times with him had never been as kind as they should have been.

He caressed her cheek, smiling boldly even as he faded. "It is a comfort to be cowardly together."

Pulling away, she struggled to keep her voice strong, "Yes." She smiled back at him. He always said he liked her smile.

He nodded and his voice sounded tired as he echoed her, "Yes. Now go."

The sickness she felt made her want to curl into his arms. But she forced herself to ask, "Are they … ?"

He nodded again, and she could see the color draining from his face. She shook her head and set her jaw. "I will not leave for their sake."

"You know they will not show you the mercy of death." He looked straight into her eyes to be sure she understood.

The salt tears burned her cheeks. He was right, of course. She wanted not to care. But she had to care for another's sake. It would all be her responsibility now. How she wished she was not split between two people. "Goodbye, then."

He squeezed her hand for the last time. "Goodbye."

She rose, and with one last look, vanished down the corridor not a moment too soon. Suddenly all the torches on the wall, which had been drained by his earlier use of power, leapt to life. The air grew hot as the fire dragon's breath, and a man with yellow eyes, like those of a particularly malicious cat, stood in front of him. The man's matching saffron robes radiated the fire's light, but in the next few heartbeats they dulled. He looked down at the man in the iron boots and clicked his tongue, "Such a waste of your time, Zinic. I would think that you were smarter than that."

Zinic rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes. "You've no more use for me, Yirak. It is you who are wasting your time."

The Fire sorcerer squatted and gave Zinic a look of false hurt. "Wasting my time? Zinic! How can you speak so after what we once were to each other?"

Zinic regarded Yirak coolly. "I was your master once, and that is all," grimacing and putting a hand to the wound he continued, "I don't believe for one moment that you were fond of those days."

Yirak frowned, a very dour look on his gaunt face. "So, now that I am your master, you cannot at least treat me with the same respect that I treated you?"

"You are not my master," Zinic replied. "You're only a willing slave to another."

"Is that what's bothering you?" Yirak put his hand to his chest and pretended to be surprised, "Well, you know, you don't have to be a slave. There is another who could take your place."

"Don't play this game, Yirak. I know better than to ask you to let me die in peace. But you must know I am not going to beg for life, and you are powerless to give it to me even if I did. I'm quite content to die like this." Energy was bleeding out of him, but his resolution was firm.

Yirak stood and sighed. "You could have killed yourself if you wanted to die so much."

Zinic laughed and shuddered, but he had to grind his teeth to continue because the icy, hollow feeling in his stomach had begun to suck his breath away. "Don't mock my intelligence, Yirak. You only mock your own in doing so. We both know that you could force me to undo any harm that I do to myself. But Land magic was put into the blade that has killed me. You and your mistress have no power over magic that is not Firebound."

Yirak grinned. "Very clever. But it looks like you forgot about the power of iron."

Zinic shrugged awkwardly from where he lay and thought it was taking a rather long time for him to die. "Iron cannot protect from magical attacks," he reasoned. "These boots only control my magic, not whether I live or die."

Zinic took another painful breath that did not seem to hold enough air. "As it is not my magic that kills me, you cannot force me to stop it, and I do not have the power to save myself." Zinic could now taste the blood on his lips.

Yirak rested his own leather-booted foot on Zinic's wounded stomach and smiled when Zinic flinched involuntarily from the pain. "Well, this will hurt, quite a lot, and yes, it is a fatal wound which the power of Fire cannot undo. But I can do this." Yirak whirled and sent a stream of fire at the iron bars on a nearby window. The metal turned to slag. Yirak gleefully took a handful of the molten iron, and turned back around to shove the still steaming mass into Zinic's open wound. Zinic howled even as Yirak said with satisfaction, "Now the iron blocks the Land." Yirak retrieved his bloody hand from the man's chest and answered his screams calmly, "I've taken the courtesy of molding the iron to block only the wound and no important blood flow. Your powers will take it from there. It will likely be uncomfortable—but you'll live."

As the burns on his hand healed, Yirak took a moment to relish Zinic's agony. It had clearly been worth it to Yirak to have a few moments of searing hot metal in his hand in order to inflict such pain. Then, with lines of yellow light stabbing at the air, Yirak faded slowly from sight.

The torches died once more, and the air was cool again. Zinic held his bleeding stomach with his hand and got up unsteadily. Then he staggered slowly back to his room, keeping his hand on the wall as support and guidance in the dark. His traitorous flesh healed around the iron, and all the time as he walked, the trail of blood he left absorbed into the stone behind him as if it was never there.