The Fire & Ice Chronicles - THE COLOUR OF AMBER, part 2
Chapt. 1It was not long before the four had gathered their possessions and had started out on the long trek to Ambrohame. Behind them, the cave network now looked like any other with no sign left that anyone had ever set foot there.
Where possible, they journeyed along the less-travelled trails, as opposed to the main paths and trade routes. "No need to draw any attention to ourselves," Lady Mercury had said. "It'll only take one rumoured sighting of us and we'll have every sheriff and inquisitor in a five-mile radius swarming all over the roads from here to the edge of The Great Mire." She paused, then added, presumably for purposes of morale, "Not that we couldn't still get through of course, but it would just make an arduous journey all the more so."
The four of them walked for as long as they could to cover as much ground as possible before nightfall. As their journey progressed, Leytan fell slightly back and into step with Lady Mercury, who had been walking a little way behind the others.
He wanted to get to the bottom of her strange behaviour back at the cave, partly out of curiosity, but also because he knew that if she was distracted by anything, it could compromise her safety on the mission, and thereby everyone else's. A mercenary needed to have tunnel-vision on jobs like this, so any distractions needed to be sort out before the real work began.
"Are you unwell, Isabel?" he asked innocently, trying to sound like he was simply striking up a conversation with his lover.
"Fine, thank you, Leytan," sniffed Lady Mercury. "Walking is not an experience I am unfamiliar with." Her reply was gift-wrapped in a smile, and her normal sardonic wit.
Leytan returned her smile briefly before continuing. "I was meaning to ask back at the cave. You seemed... I don't know. You seemed as though your mind were elsewhere after talking with Queen Greystagg."
Lady Mercury stiffened her shoulders slightly at this question. "Merely contemplating what we had all just agreed to do. Breaking into Marblehead is not what I would call an enticing prospect."
Leytan was not convinced by this at all. "We've had jobs before now that involved us crossing paths - and sometimes swords - with The Opposition," he reminded her gently, "so why does this one in particular bother you so much?"
"Like that time we were hired by the Traders Guild in Bruin?" Lady Mercury scoffed. "Stopping that Opposition smuggling ring bringing in a whole ship full of Red Dragon Eggs? Those sorts of jobs? They're not in the same class as attacking Marblehead itself!"
"That was hardly what I would describe as crossing swords with the Opposition," Leytan retorted. "More a case of crossing swords with some forth-rate Opposition-pretenders with delusions of grandeur."
"My point exactly," nodded Lady Mercury. "This time we're going up against the Opposition in its stronghold. It won't be the same at all." She then added, warming to the subject as it kept her mind off her real worries, "And let's not forget that we're not even acting this time with backing from the Powers-That-Be. We're going to be violating Neutrality laws."
Leytan grunted idly, sounding less than troubled. "What a missed opportunity. We could have probably rung an extra thousand out of Greystagg if we'd made that point to her..."
"And the rules of The Greater Game," Lady Mercury persisted, "There's a danger we'll be violating them too." She looked more downcast. "For what they're worth in this day and age," she added in a resigned tone.
These were all very good reasons for concern, and for Lady Mercury's preoccupied behaviour. And yet still Leytan was not convinced.
"Still, those kind of things have never troubled you this much before," he said, and looked at his lover with one of his penetrating looks.
Lady Mercury looked back at him just as resolutely, but then sighed. She looked past him to see how far away Wren and Jan-Jan were.
"Damn you, Leytan," she said softly, and then looked at him again. How could she tell him? How do you tell the person you love that every night for the past two months you have dreamed of their destruction?
Every night the same dream...
Isabel is standing in a black void and laid about her are four bodies wrapped in bone-white shrouds, and Jan-Jan is frantically running among the bodies. One by one, the poor, distressed urchin rips the shrouds off to reveal the members of her adopted family. Midnight, the renegade Powers-That-Be agent and Watcher, her face blackened by soot as if they died in a fire... Vyrrian Wren, his eyes wide open, gazing up at her with a sightless, black stare....
Then the two most horrific sights - herself and Leytan. Leytan's neck appears broken and the ominous shadow of a noose hovers over his face. And as for Isabel herself, her... well, yes, let's say it, her corpse perfectly still, all the colour drained from her skin. Then Jan-Jan collapses in a heap, sobbing inconsolably.
At this point, Lady Mercury always tries to go over to her, and to comfort her but before she can reach her, a dark shadow looms over the urchin and drags her screaming away into the blackness.
At this point, Lady Mercury would always wake up, often in a cold sweat. It seemed that they were all under the shadow of death, and she could do nothing even to warn the others.
She looked again at Leytan. She could not tell him exactly the reasons, but she decided that she could give him the gist of them. So she answered, but in a much quieter, softer tone then her normal, imperious voice. It was a tone she only used when she was talking about something very personal, or when they were at their most intimate.
"We've cheated death so often in recent months," she whispered, "and each time we've come closer and closer to actually losing. Like the aftermath of that Red Dragon egg smuggling ring," she cited, deliberately choosing one of the most gruesome experiences the gang had so far faced. “We never did find out who it was who had butchered that Ships crew in so grizzly a manner," shuddering slightly at the memory of the horrific mutilations that had been carried out on the crew both before and after death. "Or that business just two weeks ago involving that blonde and those two giant scorpions," she added, shaking her head as she thought back to that incident. There were some things the human mind should never be made to experience, and that was one of them."
Leytan nodded, more in sympathy than actual agreement. "That's the price of our line of work though, Isabel. We deal with danger and death, week-in, week-out. Sometimes more often than that."
"Yes," nodded Lady Mercury wearily, "but of late it's being getting past just business, Leytan." She was not willing to lose him; this premonition would not be allowed to come to pass, not as long as she had the strength to have a say in the matter. The problem was, she was genuinely starting to wonder whether she did have the strength anymore. "It's been just a constant barrage of threats to us. It feels like Warlock was just the beginning, and everything since has been one escalation after another." She let out another sigh. "Danger is becoming more then just a by-product of our line of work, Leytan, its becoming our whole lives. And with every task we accept, we make more enemies. You know, I think we now know more people who want to kill us than who mean us no harm. That is a very worrying development."
Leytan listened to Lady Mercury carefully. He had to concede that she was making some very valid points, but he still doubted that she was getting to the nub of the matter. As he tried to think of something to say to put Lady Mercury back at her ease, his train of thought was interrupted by a shout from Wren.
"Squire, get over here quick!"
Leytan looked ahead and saw both Wren and Jan-Jan crouching down behind a thicket up ahead near a crossroads in the path. Jan-Jan was bristling like a wild cat.
"Ley-Ley," she hissed like a cat coming face-to-face with a surly dog. "Peoples! They come this way."
Leytan and Lady Mercury did not hesitate for an instant; they may not have been able to hear anything but they knew that Jan-Jan had almost the same sixth sense as the wild cats that had raised her. They quickly sprinted up to where Jan-Jan and Wren were hidden, and joined them behind the thicket, waiting to see who was coming.
As they waited, they became aware of the distant sound of voices and horses approaching, getting louder and louder.
"We don't make a play unless we have to," Leytan ordered, taking charge of the situation, "but stay alert and ready.”
The four mercenaries listened intently, tense with both readiness and nervousness, as the voices gradually became louder and closer...
Lady Mercury's hand suddenly grasping his shoulder snapped Leytan back to the present.
"You should pay more attention to what's ahead of you Leytan. Or rather," she added, indicating the floor that lay before them, 'what's under you... One more step and you might have plummeted.'
Stretched out before them was a collection of hexagonal stone tiles, arranged to form a wide path across to the other side where the doorway stood. Kneeling down, Leytan could clearly make out the images engraved upon each of the tiles.
"A sword, and a shield' Leytan announced. 'But that means..."
"A causeway ", Wren intoned ominously. The group exchanged apprehensive glances. The reputation of these devious puzzles were well known to them. Many a dungeoneer, through ignorance or poor co-ordination, had stepped upon the wrong tile only for it to fall away, plunging them to their deaths in the murky abyss below.
"Strange,' the assassin murmured, lost in his own thoughts. 'Seems so much smaller than they used to be..."
"How do you mean?" asked Lady Mercury.
The question jerked Wren out his private ruminations. "Nothing milady," he quickly recovered. "Just thinking out loud." Her stare lingered upon Wren's face for a second more than was comfortable, as if she was trying to read his thoughts through the expression on his face.
"The question remains, which path do we take?" Leytan mused, bringing the two's attention back to the tableau before them.
"Well, given we'll be effectively risking our lives on a collection of fifty-fifty chances, I'm all in favour of finding another route," said Wren, feeling his well honed instinct for self preservation kicking in at full strength.
"Agreed. There was an archway about fifty paces back the way we came," nodded Lady Mercury as she turned towards the room's entrance. "I suggest we retrace our steps and take th-"
Almost as if in direct response to her intentions, the portcullis of the door they had just walked through came crashing down, embedding its wrought iron edges into the floor with a resolute shudder.
"I see a flaw in that otherwise-sound plan milady," Wren commented after a moment's silence.
"You're not helping," seethed Lady Mercury, bringing the palm of her hand to her face in the universal symbol of exasperation.
"Nothing for it then," said Wren with a tone of grim inevitability. "We'll have to risk crossing. Leytan, you've been quiet for a while, care to lead the charge?"
Strange, Leytan contemplated, considering the puzzle ahead of him. I swear this reminds me... something that someone did or said... what was it now?
One week earlier...
The gang had been crouched down at the side of the road to Ambrohame, hidden behind a thicket of heather, listening to the sound of approaching travellers.
Leytan and Wren had their hands on the hilts of their respective weapons, Leytan thumbing the safety catch on his repeater crossbow, while Wren clenched and unclenched his fists around the handles of his two silver pommel daggers. Lady Mercury meanwhile mentally readied a spell and Jan-Jan shrank behind them but still bristled like a cat getting ready to pounce, making a mental note of all the big stones and heavy looking branches with in easy reach. The urchin wasn't a fighter and had no real knowledge of weapons as such but she knew how to defend herself if push came to shove.
"Steady... steady does it, they may just pass" Lady Mercury said quietly, trying to lessen the tension that was gripping both Leytan and Wren. She could instinctively tell from just from a glance how tightly they were coiled and were likely to go off without much provocation.
The noise of the travellers grew nearer and nearer, as it did the four became aware of the sound of voices mixed in with the trundle of wheels and horses feet... and strangely, those voices sounded familiar.
"That sounds like..." Leytan began, but before he could finish he was almost knocked over by the darting figure of Jan-Jan who bounded out from the hiding place.
"HEXX-HEXX GIRLS!" the urchin gasped in delight. Exchanging glances, the others emerged from their hiding places.
There on the path was Jan-Jan grinning broadly and just in front of her was a horse drawn, hand painted caravan. Seated in the driving seat of the caravan were two young gypsy girls, obviously sisters.One was thin but not in an unhealthy way, with auburn coloured hair and pale green eyes. She wore a gold earring in her left ear and a colourful red and green dress. Her sister was fuller figured and unlike her sister had raven black hair and deep blue eyes, she too wore a gold earring but hers was in her right ear and her dress was a more plain cream and black.
Unlike most people who encountered Leytan and Wren, both girls grinned at the sight of the four mercenaries, for these girls knew the other aspect of them, the outlaw hero side of their nature. For many moons ago both sisters had been saved from the ultimate dishonour at the hands of a group of highwaymen by the intervention of Leytan and Wren. Now they were staunch allies and friends of Fire & Ice.
"Naidra and Thorn Hexx," Leytan said, slightly laughing, all tension released. "You are aware you two very nearly wandered right into an ambush?"
Thorn, the younger, fuller-figured sister, smiled at this comment."Not so Leytan, we knew someone was up ahead. We thought you might be highwaymen or wolves and were ready to defend our honour." She showed the gang the small silver crossbow that she had tucked into the furls of her dress.
"How did you know someone was up ahead? There was no possible way, we were hidden before you even came into sight," Lady Mercury said in a tone of desbelief. Thanks to an upbringing that encouraged a contempt towards travellers, she was not overly fond of these two young gypsies. That, and she was sure Thorn Hexx had eyes for Leytan.
Thorn looked over at Lady Mercury and smiled and then nodded her head up to the trees that surrounded the cross roads.
"No birds, your Ladyship. The presence of you four scared them away. We heard their singing just suddenly stop and then a mass flutter of wings, that indicated to us that someone or something up ahead had put the wind up their tails."
Wren nodded, impressed by this display of natural initiative. Lady Mercury merely raised one of her eyebrows and scoffed.
"Why are you on the road?" Naidra asked in a quiet voice. She was the elder of the two but was much shyer then her younger sister.
"We're on our way to Ambrohame. Our services are required by the Grey Sisters," Wren replied.
"On foot? You'll never make it before dark. Let us give you a ride to Ambrohame," Naidra said.
"Your offer is most gratefully received,' Lady Mercury quickly responded in a tone that suggested anything but, "but we'd rather walk," and made to carry on walking.
"Isabel, don't be daft! Naidra is right, it will be quicker if we ride with them," Leytan said, slightly annoyed. Lady Mercury's haughty nature towards the Hexx Girls always irked him.
"And it'll be safer," Wren added. "Less chance of us been seen by some unfriendly eyes if we're hidden in a Caravan."
Lady Mercury turned round and gave them both a hard stare. Finally she shrugged her shoulders.
"Very well, I bow to the majority vote... though I still think we should walk!" she said forcefully. Thorn Hexx had already jumped down from the driver's seat and opened the door of the caravan and pulled down the little wooden steps.
"There you go. It's not a high class inn or palace but it's comfortable," she said.
"For what we require Thorn its more then adequate," Leytan said and he and Wren entered the caravan. Lady Mercury looked at Thorn coldly and then walked gracefully up the stairs and into the caravan. Lastly, Jan-Jan enthusiastically bounded up the steps.
Thorn shut the door and put the stairs back up then rejoined her sister in the front seat. Naidra took hold of the rains and coaxed the horse to turn round and head towards Ambrohame.
Tread the Path of the defensive, for the path of aggression will only lead you down to defeat.
"That's it!" he said suddenly.
Lady Mercury and Wren looked at him blankly. "Beg your pardon, squire?" Wren enquired.
"What Thorn Hexx said to us as we parted ways with her and her sister, back on the road to Ambrohame. So I think only the hexagons with shields on are safe."
Lady Mercury looked skeptical. "Entrusting our lives to the cryptic warning of a young gypsy witch? I think I'd rather take the coin toss."
Leytan looked coldly at her
"Well I haven't heard you come up with any better suggestions, Constance."
Ignoring the flash of anger that had flared in Lady Mercury's eyes at being addressed by her hated first name, Leytan took a deep breath and slowly walked forward on to the tile that bore the symbol of a shield and waited.
From somewhere off in the distance there was the sound of a bell. Instantly the tile, with the sword symbol next to him plunged into the black abyss below.
He breathed a sigh of relief and looked back at his two companions.
"Well come on, don't just stand there, follow me! Even the safe path doesn't exist for long once the journey's begun."
"That was a very stupid risk to take Leytan," Lady Mercury said as she and Wren began to follow him.
"But it paid off-"
"That is entirely beside the point, Wren!" she interrupted. "The fact still remains he placed his safety in the hands of a cryptic warning that could have meant absolutely anything. But more importantly, he endangered our chances of getting the rest of our pay!"
"So nice to know you care Isabel," Leytan retorted, silencing the conversation. The comment stung Lady Mercury. She knew the only reason she was annoyed was that Leytan had risked his life.
Her thoughts were swiftly dispelled by the sudden rush of air from the east. Looking down, she watched as the tile to her right dropped away, leaving a gaping hole mere inches from her.
She gulped and hastened her crossing.
And to think people used to cross those things blinded, shuddered Leytan as they stepped off the final tile and through the archway into yet another corridor.
"You don't hear them hit the ground," said Wren, a slight waver in his voice. "That's what gets to me. Do they keep falling forever? Never stopping, never slowing, surrounded by darkness while ravaged by hunger and thirst?"
Lady Mercury turned, her face suddenly filled with concern. "Is everything all right, Wren?"
"Hm? Oh, just fine, milady. Never better."
But the trembling hand and the all too forced smile suggested otherwise.
Leytan was surprised. Of the group, Wren had always proven himself to be the most unshakable in the face of overwhelming peril, to the point where Lady Mercury had once suggested it would take nothing short of an entire army for him to even raise an eyebrow. But now, Wren seemed to be at the most vulnerable they had ever seen him.
"I don't need anyone's concern!" he snapped. "I'm fully capable of taking care of myself!" His gaze had dropped to his right hand, his hand which the others had long since discovered was formed not of skin and bone, but of handcrafted silver. He seemed almost hypnotized by it, as if he were waiting for it to open up and swallow him whole.
"I'm not weak," he whispered to himself. "Not anymore..."
"Wren," said Lady Mercury gently, "you're afraid. I understand that. But don't for a second believe that makes you weak." She reached out and took Wren's hand between her own. "Strength lies in confronting your fears, letting them pass over and through you. If you can stare into the face of that which terrifies you the most and not turn away, then there is nothing that you cannot accomplish."
Wren stared at Lady Mercury, almost as if seeing her for the first time. The words were nothing he hadn't heard before, but the tone behind them was one of genuine and unconditional compassion. As she watched, he brought his lips together in a grateful smile. "Thank you, Isabel," he whispered, uncharacteristically dispensing of his usual formal manner of address.
As though he had once more remembered how his body operated, he suddenly drew himself up to his full height and bought his hands sharply together in a manner that radiated conviction of purpose.
"Right! Enough of this banter! Nothing will be accomplished by standing around like some kind of aging knitting circle! Shall we press on?"
Seeing the familiar spark burning in his close friend once more, Leytan couldn't help but smile warmly at Isabel. For all of their differences, for all of their bristling exchanges and their constant efforts to undermine each other, it was at times like these that showed just how closely the eclectic group of travellers had grown during the last few months.
"Where are we anyway?" Leytan asked, finally taking stock of his surroundings since leaving the causeway. "This corridor looks different from the other ones." He brushed his hands against the masonry of the corridor. There was a marked difference between the natural formations they had passed so far. The stonework here was deliberately carved, running in a perfect parallel as far as their eyes could see.
And there was the faint breeze. A not entirely unpleasant one, almost akin to the gentle winds that had accompanied them through the forests. Although he didn't remember it being as loud as it now felt and there certainly wasn't any buzzing noise in the distance-
"Oh no," Leytan gasped, a genuine note of panic in his voice. "Not this..."
"Leytan? What is it?" asked Lady Mercury.
"Back," yelled Leytan, "Everybody back!" But even as he started towards the archway, the floor beneath them began shifting as an antiquated mechanism began to activate. With a jolt they were carried forward, the doorway vanishing away into the distance from whence they came.
"A moving floor?" asked Wren out loud. "Oh, please don't tell me this is what I think it is..."
"What do you think this is?" Lady Mercury asked, a hint of panic in her voice. She had begun to recognise that on those rare occasions when both Leytan and Wren were afraid, something very bad was ready to fill their immediate future.
Wren did not answer. He was staring ahead, eyes transfixed, a sole finger stretched out before him. In the distance, the flickering light glinted off the circular shard of spinning metal that hurled itself towards them.
"Ebbira's teeth," Leytan cursed. "We've blundered into the Corridor of Blades!"