Chapter Seventy-Two

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Lorn stared up at the sky. He couldn't look away, though all he saw were pale clouds veiling a weak, watery sun.

The creature--half bird, half woman--had moved with unnatural speed; there and gone again in the blink of an eye. Lorn was left with a fleeting impression of eyes and teeth, talons and tar-black feathers.

There, and gone again--with Guin in her arms.

His hands flexed at his sides, fists knotted and released again and again.

Behind him, Kip whispered, "She's gone."

At last, Lorn tore his eyes away from the empty sky. He looked first at Kip, and saw his own shock mirrored in the boy's dark gaze.

When his gaze fell on Emissary Igren, he saw only a blank, emotionless stare. Her lips had drawn together, a red slash across the flawless alabaster of her face.

Lorn's stomach tightened with a sudden, ferocious urge to strike the woman down. There was no reason for it, but he couldn't suppress the stab of rage and hatred the sight of her indifference sent slicing through his insides. Snake, he thought. Cunning, calculating leech. Matta trusted you. She trusted you to protect her, and now she's dead.

The violent impulse must have shown, because Igren's eyes flicked to the sword at Lorn's belt before cooly meeting his gaze. He forced down the vitriol seeping across his tongue and said, "That was a witch."

Slowly, Igren nodded. "Halfskinned," she said. "The ability is rare."

Lorn took a deep, shuddering breath through dry lips. He felt both light and heavy, made simultaneously of stone and drifting ash. There was a thread bound to his heart, and every second Guin was carried further away, it tightened until he thought it would snap and kill him.

Calm. Remain calm. You will find her. You don't have a choice.

Lorn licked his parched lips. "They flew east."

Igren studied him for a long minute. Then, very quietly, she said, "No. She will turn south once she reaches the fields again. From there, she will fly to the edge of Wyrwood."

Lorn stilled. "How do you know?"

Igren didn't answer. Instead, she slid out of the saddle and turned to Kip. "Return to your companions. Send back two of the horses. There will be enough left to carry you all. Tell my scouts that they are to bring you and the wounded to camp, and that General Terin must proceed with the attack on Alavard as planned in my absence."

Kip stared at her. "But--Guin..."

Igren raised a hand to silence him. "Why do you think I'm asking for horses, boy? Now make haste. We have no time."

Kip shot a glance in Lorn's direction. Mutely, Lorn nodded aquesnece. Kip's expression was reluctant, but he gripped the reins all the same and spurred the horse into the trees. As the animal's hoofbeats faded into the distance, Lorn turned once more to Igren.

"I ask again, Emissary--how do you know where the witch is taking Guin?"

Igren closed her eyes for the briefest of instants. She seemed suddenly much older, hollowed out--fragile. Lorn hadn't known she could look like that.

"Because I know where the witches live. I have been there. And it is where Shel will take the Reader."

"Shel." Lorn took a step toward Igren. "You know her name."

"Yes."

Reflexively, Lorn gripped the hilt of his sword. "Why?"

"Because." Igren raised her eyes to meet his again, and they were no longer indifferent. They were raw and glittering with grief. "Because I am the one who told her to do it, M'Lord."

Lorn's throat closed. His lungs tightened, painful and hard against his ribs. When he found his voice, it was little more than a rasp. "You told the witches to hunt Guin down?"

"I bartered with them for Ther's security," Igren replied. "What did you think, M'Lord? That I would allow Ther to fall under the power of yet another creature like him? That I would risk further enslavement of our people, whose freedom was so dearly bought? Yes, I told the witches to follow you, to take the girl and the book when it was found, and bring them to me." The glitter in her eyes became a glint of fury. "But I was wrong to entrust the sisters with such a task. It seems they have broken our contract." She spread her hands and let them fall. "There. I've told the truth. I had hoped to wait until after Ther was saved, but it appears nothing I had planned has born the intended fruit. I..." She swallowed. "I have failed."

"You have done more than fail." Lorn's lips drew back in a snarl. "My parents died by your side. My sister, murdered under your charge. And now, my friend has been stolen from me, by your design." He drew his sword and pointed it at Igren's exposed throat. "Is there anything else you wish to take, Igren? Must I die as well, before you are satisfied?"

Igren tilted her chin up, away from the blade's edge, but made no move to defend or retreat. Her gaze remained locked on his. "You are not the only one who grieves," she whispered.

"Don't you dare speak to me of grief," Lorn hissed. "You are nothing but a curse! My parents dragged you out of the gutter, and you have repaid their kindness with death, deceit and misery!"

"I have done what I could to protect those I love," Igren replied quietly. "As only I know how."

"Love?" Lorn spat. "Is that what you call it? Is that what you told yourself, when you held Matta in a thrall? When you tried to steal and corrupt Father's heart?" His fingers tightened on the sword hilt. "I saw you. I saw you in the garden!"

Igren's mouth tightened, but she made no reply. The sword began to shake in his grip, but Lorn would not lower it. They stood that way for nearly a minute, she still as a statue, he trembling with desperation and rage.

At last, Igren said, "You will never know my loss any more than I can understand yours. I accept your blame, though not the intent you place in my heart." Slowly, she reached up, took hold of the blade's edge and moved it aside. "Perhaps I deserve to die by your sword--but not now. Not while the girl and the Sorcerer's book are in Shel's hands. You need me if you intend to retrieve them both. There is still time, M'Lord. There is still time."

Tears stung Lorn's eyes, blurring his vision. He cursed them--cursed his own frailty. The sword had grown impossibly heavy. He lowered it.

"Guin is not just a girl," he said, swallowing the burning lump rising in his throat. "She is braver, truer, and more worthy of power than any of us, Igren. There can be no forgiveness for what you have done."

"I don't ask for forgiveness," Igren replied quietly. "Only time to right some of what I have wronged." 

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