Chapter Forty-Eight

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Igren pulled her hood low over her face as she moved among the troops taking their brief rest. There was activity everywhere, from riders tending their mounts to soldiers refilling their canteens at the river and higher-ranking officers, Terin amongst them, haggling out a mass bridge-crossing with the Syrmol River troll.

She had a few minutes to slip away unnoticed. With luck, the witches would see the opportunity and cooperate.

Navigating through the throng, Igren made her way toward a small copse of trees clustered on the edge of the river. She avoided eye contact as she walked, keeping her head low beneath the cowl. She was aware that her figure stood out, but Igren also knew how to walk in a way that made her nearly invisible--a mere shadow, a fleeting impression that skimmed the consciousness of those around her. Added to this, the dawn light was uncertain at best. The soldiers barely marked her passing. 

A few moments later, she was standing in the small grove. She didn't have to wait long. 

With a rustle of wings, three falcors descended. They landed in the small tree-shielded clearing and cast off their avian forms. One of them Igren recognized as Carwyn, the young witch who had visited Matta's chamber. The other two were strangers--an older, broadly built woman, her skin etched with swirling scars, and a whip-thin youngling whose red hair had been braided with bone shards and silver. 

"Finally slipped away, did you?" Carwyn asked, flashing her sharp teeth in a sneer. "Even when you hold the seat of power, you still skulk in the shadows like a thief. You're a disgrace to both of your bloodlines."

Igren returned her sneer with equal venom. "I am not bound to honor any lineage. That is the privilege of being a monster."

Carwyn tossed her head and laughed, but her companions remained impassive. Their expressions were cold and watchful, tinged with something like fear. Igren studied them narrowly before asking, "What news do you carry?" 

"The Reader was taken by Alavard," the older woman replied shortly. Her lip curled in disgust as she uttered the golden city's name. 

Igren's breath caught in her throat. He heart stilled, then leapt against her ribs and began hammering like a madman's fists against the walls of his cell. 

"When?" she asked, amazed at how level her own voice sounded.

"Some days ago," Carwyn replied, throwing an irritated glance over her shoulder at the woman who'd spoken. "Shel tracked her from Svard, where she was captured. Svard is now under Thesul's rule. You may not have heard, but King Karth is dead, and his daughter imprisoned for murder. His nephew, Orven, an apparent puppet of Alavard, has taken the helm."

"How do you know this?" Igren demanded.

Carwyn smiled slyly, reached inside her hip pouch and pulled out a small, mangled piece of gold and emerald mechanicraft. It looked like it had once resembled an insect. She held it out to Igren, who accepted it with trembling hands. 

"We intercepted that yesterday evening," Carwyn explained. "On its way to Alavard, from Svard. Be careful," she added, as Igren turned the thing over in her fingers, "it has a touch of venom in its sting. We had to crush it with a rock before it stopped fighting. It was quick as a pitfiend"

Igren threw her an incredulous glance. "How did this--this metal insect tell you that Svard has been overthrown by Thesul?"

"It holds a captured voice," Carwyn said, shrugging. "I've no idea how. Some manner of otherlander technology. Here--" She reached out and flicked a tiny golden lever on the thing's back. After a pause, it began to vibrate in Igren's palm, and a hollow, rasping voice filled the small clearing.

"Lord Thesul, I hope this message finds you as well as it leaves me. I have good tidings regarding our operations in Svard..."

Igren listened until the message had run its course and subsided into intelligible buzzing. She gazed down at the metal creature, resisting the urge to crush it to dust in her fist, then returned her attention to Carwyn.

"So. Svard is overtaken. They will begin to attack the lowlands in days." Her voice was flat, devoid of emotion. Igren surprised herself, sometimes, at how easily she hid her true emotions. "You said Thesul has the Reader. What else can you tell me?"

Was it her imagination, or did the witch's sneer slip a fraction of a notch?

"The Sorcerling is being held in Thesul's palace, along with her companions," she said. "We don't know what exactly Thesul plans to do with the girl, but this delay is costing us dearly. The book has yet to be found. Our time is running short. The fog has accelerated tenfold these past few days, and we fear that soon it may be too late to save this world from destruction."

Igren nodded slowly, watching the young woman's face. "Have you tried to free the girl?"

There it was again--the hesitation, the flicker of unease. But the words were as smooth as ever. "No. We are too few. You think we could infiltrate that nest of vipers? You, who are bringing an army to slit Thesuls' throat?" Carwyn let out a low, rough chuckle. "No, sister mine. We agreed to track the child, to bring you news and only interfere when the book is found. That is all."

"But she is still alive--you are certain of that?" Igren pressed. 

Carwyn nodded. "Oh yes. Whatever the false prince is plotting, it obviously requires that the girl lives. He has her locked in a very grand apartment, and is lavishing her with all manner of rare luxuries and obsequious attentions. She is safe--at least, for now."

"And what of the prince?"

Carywn shrugged. "I cannot say."

Igren was silent for a moment, considering the implications of the witch's news. This was the very last thing she had wanted to hear. The girl, in Alavard's power--Svard, overthrown under their very noses--the fog's destruction accelerating tenfold what they had predicted...

She felt like the disintegration had already taken hold, and the very ground was falling away from beneath her feet. 

"I thank you for delivering this information," she said, pocketing the golden insect. "This throws our situation into an entirely different light. Continue to monitor the Reader's condition and location, and report to me if anything changes. As for Svard..." she trailed off, then shook her head. "I must think what is to be done. But Alavard remains the most urgent priority. It is the root of Thesul's power, the rotting tooth at the center of the Sorcerer's old regime. If we pull it out, the rest will follow easily enough. I doubt this Orven will know what to do without his precious Lord to guide him. Thesul is not a man who employs underlings that think for themselves."

Carwyn nodded and dipped her head in a mock bow. "As you wish, Emissary." 

Igren returned  her bow with an acerbic little tilt of her own, then added, "We'll arrive in Ardur within two days. Stars willing, our plans will not go awry, and I'll be able to recapture the girl and M'Lord before any more harm is done."

"Your optimism is an inspiration to us all," Carwyn purred. "We will continue our vigil as you continue your march."

Igren nodded, then said, "And one more thing, Carwyn."

The young woman raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"

Igren's lips parted in an icy little smile. "Kindly keep out of sight of the patrols. I would hate for one of my lieutenant's more enthusiastic marksmen to shoot one of you out of the sky."

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