Chapter Forty-Six | Part Three

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Igren watched the moon ascend into a bank of silvery cloud. It was nearly full, a lidless eye watching Dwol's soldiers move stealthily across the flatlands of western Valnyr. They had taken pains to mask the glint of their armor with dark cloaks, making them blend with the night. Even their horses' tack had been blackened. If ever there had been an army made of shadows, Igren thought, they must have looked something like this.

To her right, Kelle Terin rode in silence. His posture was erect, eyes sharp and watchful beneath his hood, scanning the horizon. He had barely spoken since their encounter in the armory, except to relay information necessary to the work at hand or give orders. He seemed to be building a wall around himself, a fortress of icy glances and silence. But beneath the cold exterior, Igren sensed great turmoil in the man, a storm waiting to break. He'd become a walking tinderbox, ready, at any moment, to be set alight.

Igren found it unnerving, yet at the same time oddly comforting. She understood now what Matta had meant when she'd said Kelle Terin steadied her. Even broken and silently raging, he was still somehow solid, methodical, calm--though it was doubtful that would last once they reached Alavard.

Turning away from the General, Igren thought, If Thesul could see this man's eyes, he might learn the meaning of fear.

But of course, by the time he was close enough for that, it would be too late.

Igren's fingers tightened on the reins of her black mare, and she had to force herself not to urge her into a gallop. They were making good time, and at their current pace would arrive in Alavard in just under two days--it would be senseless to tire the horses and soldiers with a mad sprint.

Still, Igren was restless. Worse than restless. The desire to to kill, to tear and rend and stab, to spill blood and avenge what she'd lost, was akin to madness, or fever. She bit down on it, grinding her teeth in an effort to contain the bile rising in her throat.

If Terin could maintain his mask, so could she.

A long, low whistle from behind made Igren and Terin turn in their saddles. A runner was approaching, swift and silent through the swaying grass. When he reached them, he was breathless from his haste. "Emissary, General, somethin's been spotted in the air to the south of us..."

He had barely gotten the words out before a sharp cry pierced the night. Igren glanced up quickly, and saw a stark outline of wings against the moon.

She turned back to the runner and said, "No need for alarm. It's only a falcor. Are they not good omens before a battle?"

Still panting, the young man said, "But there's more than one. They've been following us for close to an hour. They don't seem to be actin' like regular falcors, Emissary. Lieutenant Furlon said they could be spies..."

"They are not," Igren said, her tone cool and final. "Report back to Furlon. Thank him for his vigilance, but tell him not to concern himself with these creatures. That is an order. We can't afford to be jumping at shadows."

The young man looked dubious, but nodded and hurried off to relay the message.

Igren watched him disappear into the ranks of cloaked soldiers, then righted herself once more in the saddle. As she did so, she caught Terrin's eye and found herself pinned by his stare.

"You seem a'might certain about them birds," he remarked mildly.

Keeping her face a careful blank, Igren nodded. "I have some knowledge of their habits, yes. They are carrion eaters. They sense slaughter on the horizon, and are simply following us in the hope of obtaining a free meal."

Terin raised an eyebrow. "Clever birds."

Igren did not reply, but adjusted herself in the saddle, directed her gaze straight ahead and nudged her mount into a canter. Once she was a few feet ahead of the general, she slowed. To her relief, he made no effort to draw level with her again. 

Igren hoped Terin would not make the connection--would not realize what the falcors actually were, and what their close pursuit meant. She hadn't had a chance to speak with any member of Shel's sisterkin since her encounter with the young witch in Matta's room. Now, it seemed, they wished to make contact--and it was about time. She had gone too long with no news of the Reader's progress. Time was running out.

But Terin was still watching her. She could feel his stare boring into her back. 

Igren studied the landscape, searching for a way to break away without arousing the man's suspicions. She couldn't allow him to know of her pact with the witches. He wouldn't understand. 

He will know Matta had no part in it, and see me as a traitor. I cannot afford to compromise his trust, not now. Not yet. When this is all over, it won't matter--but I must assure Ther's safety first.

But how was she going to steal a chance to talk with the witches with his eyes on her back?

Perhaps at dawn, while they took their rest by the Syrmol River. She could slip away then, for a short time. Igren only hoped the sisters were watching closely enough to follow her example. 

______

Shel soared over the rolling fields of Ardur, her eyes scanning the ground for any sign of the Reader or her companions. The moon was pale and shrouded in cloud, but she could still see plainly that the girl was nowhere to be found.

She cursed and curved her flight south. After the sky over Alavard had become momentarily devoured by that thing, she and her remaining sisters hadn't had any choice but to flee the city. After the storm--if it could be called that--had ceased, she'd flown back to relocate the Reader, only to find her gone. Vanished into thin air. 

Sorcery. 

Now she'd lost the trail.  They could be anywhere in Ther, or even in a different world altogether, for all she knew. After all this time, she'd slipped through their fingers...

No. I will find her. She wouldn't leave this world when so much is at stake. And she will be exhausted--her strength was already waning when I saw her. It is only a matter of time. 

But they didn't have time. The fog had sped up, and was now devouring great mouthfuls of land with each passing hour. What had once been a matter of months had become a matter of days. 

Shel continued south, searching with every sense at her disposal as the moon arced across the starry sky, watching her with clear, cold fascination.

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