Chapter Fifty-Four

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"We'll reach the Fields soon," Igren said, glancing over her shoulder at Terin. He nodded, but made no reply. In the fading light, his face was all but lost in the shadows of his hood, and she couldn't read his eyes. 

They had made good progress throughout the day, but Igren still felt time was slipping through her fingers. If Thesul had the prince's search party captive in his palace, there was no way to know how much time they still had. Thesul was unpredictable, cruel and impulsive--and as far as Igren knew, he had no desire to find the book.  He might very well kill the Reader, believing his own madness about the Fog only harming unworthy traitors to the Sorcerer's regime...

Each passing moment that Igren did not know where that girl was brought them closer to ruin.

She cast her gaze ahead, watching the last shimmering sliver of sun slip below the horizon. They would reach the Fields of Avain by morning. Though not a route popular with the troops, it made strategic sense. Crossing the fields into Ardur would bring them within a stone's throw of Diavarda. Thesul wouldn't expect them to travel so close to that cursed place.

Still, the soldiers were nervous. The Sorcerer's old stronghold was thought to be the most evil place in all of Ther--if not all of the Myriad itself. 

Igren knew that many of the rumors swirling around the ruin were exaggerations, distortions and outright lies--yet still, even she did not relish the idea of skirting that fell place, if only because of the memories it would resurrect, like corpses rising from shallow graves. 

But there was no choice. The Fog was spreading, and they had no time. 

Even if, in the end, Ther was destined to crumble to nothing, she would see Matta's death avenged.

Darkness drew itself like a cloak across the sky, and the stars began their waking. Igren watched them, and wondered--how long before even they were snuffed out?

____

Ygrael chewed slowly, methodically, sliding the dried strips of leathery meat into her mouth one morsel at a time. She had no desire to eat, but her body required fuel. A dangerous task lay ahead--her last act of service as princess of Svard. She would need all the strength as she could muster.

Captain Varyn sat across from her on the cavern floor, hands resting on knees, her gaze fixed on some internal horizon. Whatever the woman was thinking of, it was very far away.

Ygrael swallowed her last mouthful of meat and chased it down with a gulp of water from a golden cup. She presumed the goblet had been borrowed from the king's hoard--dragons didn't eat off of dishes. 

She set the cup carefully aside and leaned her back against the rough cavern wall. Now there was nothing to do but await the dawn. Though she could not read the sky from so deep within the mountain, Ygrael felt that it was not far off.

After a long silence, she asked, "What's troubling you, Captain?" 

Varyn's head jerked sharply toward her. "M'Lady?"

"You seem preoccupied."

The woman's lean face took on an unreadable expression. "Hardly surprising, considering our current circumstances, M'Lady."

Ygrael smiled a small, pained smile. "Yes, I suppose you are correct."

Varyn fell silent for a moment, then said quietly, "I should have seen through your lies."

Ygael closed her eyes and took a long breath. "Captain, you did as Father commanded, and he... he would have believed anything I told him. You did your duty."

"Duty," Varyn said, her tone edging the word with bitterness. "I had a duty to protect the lives of my guard, of the Svardian people--I have failed in both regards. Because, you see, M'Lady, I did suspect. I suspected that you had done something, that, somehow, you were lying--but I ignored my doubts, all for the sake of loyalty and duty." Her hands balled into fists and she glared down at the cave floor. "Allowing your falsehood to fester in my mind let me ignore the boy as well. I have become too accustomed to voluntary blindness."

"Well, I do not hold you at fault," Ygrael said. "Though I understand that is of little consolation."

"It is of no consolation," Varyn replied. "And now it seems I will die for my foolishness--though it is only what I deserve for my folly." 

"It is I who has promised my life to the Dragons," Ygrael countered. "Not you, Captain."

"Yet I do not see how I can survive what is to come," Varyn sighed. "I only wish..." She trailed off, then shook her head and raised a hand to wipe roughly at her eyes.

Ygrael was taken aback. Captain Varyn did not cry. It was like seeing a stone bleed. "What is it, Captain?"

Varyn coughed, then scowled. "Only a goodbye I wish I'd been able to make," she muttered. "It doesn't matter."

Ygrael bit her lip, remembering Lorn's parting words, I think I will always love you, a little--no matter what you have done.

Where is he now? Is he even alive?

Her hands began to tremble. She pressed them together, knotting the fingers into one fist. She couldn't think about Lorn. There were too many memories behind that door--too many regrets. She had to remain focused on the future.

She took a deep breath, then said quietly, "I'm sorry, Varyn. For everything."

The captain gave her a long look, then shrugged. "Not much to be done about it now, M'Lady. Let's just hope we can make some of it right."

____

"Where's Guin?"

Lucille switched off the stand mixer and glanced up at her husband. "Hm?"

Hawk held up his mobile. "Conall's on the phone. Wants to talk to her."

Lucille frowned. "Isn't she in her room?"

He shook his head. "No. Not in the den either."

Lucille picked up a dishtowel and began wiping the baking grease form her fingers. "She said she was going out for some air, but that was two hours ago. I thought she'd be back by now."

Hawk grimaced and brought the phone to his ear. "Conall? Yeah. No. No, I don't--yeah. We're gonna to check the orchard. Yeah, she had a book. I'll call you back in a mo." He paused for a moment longer, listening--then hung up.

Lucille put down the dishtowel and stared at her husband, a worried frown creasing her brows. "You think she's still out there?" She glanced at the kitchen window, and the drizzling darkness beyond. "Hawk, even if she's got the most riveting novel known to man, she can't read in the dark."

"I know," Hawk replied. He looked as worried as she felt.

"Do you know where the camping torch is?" she asked.

He nodded, then turned and walked out into the hall. Stomach churning with dread, Lucille followed him.

After a moment spent rooting through the hall closet, they found the torch and Hawk's raincoat. He shrugged into it, took the camping light from Lucille's hands and pulled open the front door. They stood together, watching the gentle rain in the light of the porch.

"I'm sure she's fine, Lucie," Hawk said, though his gruff voice sounded anything but sure. 

Lucille gave his shoulder a squeeze. "Just go find her."

Hawk handed her the phone. "If Conall or Emily call before I'm back, try not to alarm 'em," he said, then switched on the torch and stepped out into the night.

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