Hidden Magic Ch. 05bymadam_noe©
To track M'Graough we had to go back to where Tomass had lost him. It was a six hour ride and we did not talk in that time. As we left the city and entered the country, the air thinned and cleared, and the sun came through to our skin.
Tomass brightened, and I found myself glancing at his beauty. More than a few times I caught him looking back.
We broke to refresh the horses and ourselves and he spent his time with the horses, cooing. I just shook my head...men and horses. I appreciated mine, he'd seen me through many a hard time, but he wasn't a house pet. Tomass treated him as if he was.
My horse, Thunder, was tall, pure black, sleek muscle, all a war horse should be. Tomass' filly was sleekly muscled too, compact, brown with white spots. Her temper was sweet, gentle, and Thunder watched her closely, nostrils flaring.
We rode on to the fields, and then Tomass nodded, indicating we needed to turn into them. We followed an access path the farmers used to bring the ploughs through, and took it past the farmhouse and far field to some shallow hills. Beyond the woods started, and into them we went.
We followed paths meant more for human feet and dodged branches. I did notice he seemed to be one with nature. Whereas training and watchful eyes kept me from getting my hair snagged or clothes caught, he moved like silk on the wind through them, guiding his horse with simple flexes of those powerful, bunched thighs.
Deep in we came to a crossroads where the human path met that of a horse.
"Here," he said at last.
I shored up the reins and jumped down. Tomass stayed mounted, staring strangle at the treetops. I looked for fresh tracks and found them. A horse had come from the south, been tied up and stamped down a large area, then took off again.
"I believe this sorcerer of yours had a horse waiting for him. They rode south."
Tomass frowned. "He lives in the west, in the cliffs by the sea."
"That's a two week journey on a single horse for an average person. It's likely he has a base nearby."
"A campsite, a house, somewhere he stays or stayed. Surely he knows the girl failed. It's likely he is regrouping there, perhaps seeking another innocent to carry his spell, or perhaps he has moved closer to Plaindand. Does he know you're helping me?"
"It's quite possible."
"Where is it you live?"
"Further south, in the dark forest."
I smiled at that, of course my dark little sorcerer would dwell in the lands where innocents never dared travel. Hidden behind the thieves and murderers hiding there a worker of magic could easily hide.
"We'll follow the trail."
"Wait." I mounted Thunder and glanced at him. "It could be a trick," he continued. "Magic can easily make horse tracks."
"Then get your ass down there and tell me if it's a spell."
He blushed again and I doubted I would easily tire of seeing it. He swung down, revealing more of the loveliness of his legs, then crouched and waved his hands, palms down, over the tracks I had stood at.
"No magic, these are real. But how do we know they are his?"
"We don't. This is tracking. We follow and find out where the end. No M'Graough? Then perhaps someone who can point us in a new direction." I kicked Thunder's sides and off we went.
I heard Tomass scramble onto his horse and follow us, galloping to catch me up. I looked back and impossibly he moved with even more grace than before.
When he came beside me he gave me a triumphant grin, and something low inside me turned over. Already the morning with an old lover was forgotten. I frowned, angry at myself for letting my body's wants control my thoughts. I turned from him and kept going.
By nightfall we had reached the end of the shallow forest, there was still a narrow horse path that lead to the dark forest. Halfway between, another hour's ride, was a road from Plaindand and to the western towns Three directions he could have gone, but the horses were tired and so were we, and there was nowhere safe to reach in the dark so we made camp.
I charged him with starting the fire and I would hunt. It took me half an hour but I came back with a rabbit and the fire was blazing. Since there was no wood or tinder and the flames were blue I raised an eyebrow. "Doesn't it deplete your magic?"
"There are many kinds of magic. Much comes form the earth, and goes back to it, never depleted. That which comes from...other things is temporary." In the dark I could only hear the blush in his voice.
I had not been lying the other night when I spoke of true magic. In my mother's journals o the study she had identified simple earth magic, and two kinds that were seen as dangerous. Death magic was feared for obvious reasons; it was murder. Sex magic was feared because it was a sexual act that gave men power, something completely taboo in our society.
I sat down and skinned the rabbit, finding sticks to set it up for cooking. I passed him the bag I'd packed and asked him to cook up the string beans and a few fresh slices of bread.
While the rabbit cooked and he worked I rolled out the oil cloths and set up the tent via a low branch. I took his bedroll from his horse and mine and rolled them out side by side. After that I led the horses to the stream and filled up a pot of water for us.
When the food was loaded onto our small plates we ate with gusto. I sighed; only a handful of meals cooked by someone else since the war, only two in my home. I was used to hardship but tired of it all the same.
"It is not good?"
"That is not it. I was just thinking to myself; this is so much like eating at war, only animals at the coast are scarce. The fish too..."
He looked at me, expectant. "The fish?"
"Dead fell into water, the fish choked on blood all too often. The fish were diseased or small...sometimes too many women who had lived through battle died on their supper." I was suddenly lost to a vision of death, fields of bodies, wild animals feasting, the stench in tropic heat choking me, making me want to retch.
I came back to myself and his face filled my vision, blue eyes emanating calm. His hands held my face and I looked down to see I had dropped my plate, my half-eaten food in the dirt and decaying leaves.
"It's the war, isn't it?"
I jerked my face from his hands and stood. "It's nothing." I went to my pack on Thunder and pulled out the pre-wrapped leaves. I lit the cheroot on the fire and breathed the calming smoke deeply, taking up a pace between the tent and fire. "It's nothing," I repeated, in a tone that clearly said I wished to discuss it no more.
He slowly went back to the log he'd chosen and sat down, pulling his plate on his lap.
"Tell me about Serinne. Why does she want you dead?"
"The short answer is that she loved a woman very deeply, a fellow noble. This woman planned to kill the queen at the treaty signing and would have handed our lands over to the north. I had to kill her, not just to save the queen but to save us all. Serinne truly loved her, and it consumes her. She thinks it will make her feel better to kill me, but it won't. death is death and murder is murder. Only the crazy are not touched by it."
He silently chewed the last of his food then set aside his empty plate. "When it comes time...I- I know how she feels. M'Graough killed my master, the only father I ever knew. Do you think killing him will make me feel better?"
"No. It will only give your soul some of the weight mine bears. If you do it in protection of others...it helps, but it will always haunt you."
He did not reply and I turned to the trees, still smoking. I heard him throw my discarded food into the fire then gather the plates and walk towards the stream.
When he was gone I finally let the tears fall from my eyes.
I was back at Calumbria. Long ago someone had misread the geography and thought it was a peninsula of our land. In fact, the river at the north end did not go from one sea to the ocean, but went to where it was fed in the northern mountains. It was a land bridge between us, and at the north they knew it better.
Our troops had marched into a pass between two lush, green mountains. Transfixed by the beauty, our scouts did not sense the troops above us. It was a slaughter, a battle now known as the road of death.
We sustained 80% casualties. I had been at the rear with a lagging band of archers. We took up positions and covered the retreat of the few survivors but my archers fell, the fleeing women calling to us for help fell.
It was there I had been wounded in the neck. I'd bent to help a wounded woman to her feet when an arrow grazed me deep, a mere inch from my artery and certain death.
The pain was fresh, the death cries around me became a wall of sound, and I woke with a start. I felt something holding me and I thrashed about, reaching for my sword.
"Minnotte, Minnotte, it's me, Tomass!"
I stilled. He was holding me, much the way my father had when I'd been a child. He was warm, strong, comforting. I shoved him away, disgusted with my weakness.
"It was a nightmare."
"No sh- no kidding," I said, curbing my rough tongue for his innocent ears.
"I can give you something to keep your dreams pleasant."
I shook my head, my eyes barely able to see him in the dark. "I need to be able to be alert, awaken easily to danger."
"It is not a potion or a spell, just something to affect your dreams." He pulled something from his pocket and handed it to me. It was a smooth stone. His other hand waved and a small ball of light appeared.
"Eye of tiger," he said. The stone was blue, as blue as his eyes, with a band of metallic copper through the middle. "It is spelled yes, but only to absorb bad dreams and leave only good. I used it when my master was first killed, but tonight you need it more than me."
I looked at him in the light and felt a small trail of shame shoot through me. I had been rough, abusive, and downright mean to him, and here he was giving me this gift of peace.
"thank you," I said softly, and he seemed surprised.
In that moment he was soft and close. Without thinking I leaned over and brushed my lips against his.
A tingling thrill shot through me, and from his gasp I knew he felt it too. I reached up, grabbing his head and pressing him closer. I deepened the kiss and at first he was innocently tentative. Once more he gasped and I slid my tongue between his lips. He tasted of sweet man and heat, an alluring mix.
Tomass trembled against me, sighing into my mouth, his own tongue shyly gliding along mine. I moaned and my hands played over his broad shoulders to his arms, to the hands now gripping my narrow waist, and back up to his chest.
I knew the moment of surrender, the moment he would give me anything I wanted and I returned to myself once more. This was wrong; he was innocent and he trusted me on this quest.
I pushed him away. "We should get back to sleep."
The light stayed, hovering in the air, and with it I saw the hurt in his eyes. If I pressed, even now, he would take off that robe and give himself to me.
I suppressed a shudder of pure need and laid down. "Go to sleep, Tomass. It was a mistake."
I winced at the hurt. "I should not take advantage of you."
"What if I want you to?"
Desire flooded me then, a liquid pool of need between my legs. I closed my eyes an imagined the look on his face as my hands would stoke him, as my mouth would show him teasing pleasure, and the look of ecstasy that would come the first time he felt the wet heat of a female body.
Stonily I turned from him when I felt his hand reach for me. If he touched me I would cave and take him in a way that was meant for a good, honest woman who would love him. I was an earless and had to marry a man with a noble line who would give me fine, strong daughters and fair sons. A sorcerer would never be happy in such a role...it was far too dangerous.
And so I held my breath until the light went out and he laid down too. I fell into a fitful sleep, but the dreams that came were not of blood and death; they were of a young man with piercing eyes who gave himself to me completely, and satisfied needs I had not even known I possessed.
In the morning we did not speak. He heated up the next batch of beans and some of the slab of bacon. To the water he added tea, and also placed an apple on each plate, accomplishing this as I took down the tent and bedrolls.
We ate in silence and then he tended the horses while I cleaned the plates and finished packing.
Once on the trail we hit the road and I had to hop down to see the tracks. After several long minutes where he stood by me, scanning for magic, we nodded to one another that the tracks went south.
Half an hour past the road suddenly Tomass called my name. I twisted in my saddle, wondering what he could need surrounded as we were by wild grasses and flowers, when suddenly Thunder let our a cry and reared.
Training kept me on but he bucked again. I cried out and pulled hard on his bit but he did not calm. Tomass jumped from his horse and said rapid words. Thunder froze.
I slid off, dazed. "What have you done?"
"It was a trap, magic. He is hurt, his foreleg."
I followed Tomass to the front of my magically frozen horse and saw the wound. "Can you fix it?"
That day he wore a black robe with longer sleeves to accommodate the coolness of the south we headed towards. He pushed those sleeves up and called forth magic, a burred haze settling over the wound. When after long minutes he pulled back exerted it was closing, but not completely.
He waved his hand and Thunder unfroze; with another wave he stilled the animal, smoothing his handsome face along Thunder's neck.
"He'll need a day to full heal and can only walk with the weight of the pack on him. You'll have to ride with me."
This was practical but the thought of feeling his warm strength at my back, our hips thrusting with the ride together...a cold sweat covered my neck.
"Perhaps your horse can take the pack and I can ride Thunder."
He shook his head. "Thunder needs to heal. As it is we shall have to slow our pace. I'll ties his reigns to Mollay and we'll be on our way. Climb aboard."
I walked to his horse, named Mollay I now knew, and climbed up, sitting forward on the saddle. I was thankful he was conventional and had the center-pommel sadly usually reserved for female riders. He led Mollay to the front of Thunder and loosely secured Thunder's reigns through the fasteners for Mollay's pack.
Then Tomass swung up behind me and settled in, his hips sliding against mine until my arse was cushioned against him.
I bit my lip to keep from moaning. He had such splendid strength to him, I longed to press my body into his and feel the softness of my curves mash to the hard planes and angles he possessed.
His hands trembled as his arms came around me to grab the reins. He flicked them and the motion brought his forearm against the swell of my breast. I covered by adjusting my sword and clearing my throat as if nothing had happened. That innocent touch had rocked me to my core.
I glanced down and the tracks were still strong. It seemed too easy, and that had been a trap. "Keep wary for more magic. He's done nothing to hide the tracks and set that trap for us. He means for us to follow him, but slowed. What trap could he be laying?"
Tomass was silent for long moments. Finally he sighed. "To work a death spell you need an intimate object of your target. I believe he is headed for my home. Surely he realizes I am with you and we are tracking him...he must get to my home to get such an object and needs time to work the spell, hence the delay. Leading me there is a sure bet."
"What does it take to kill a sorcerer?"
"We are as mortal as you, we just have alternate means of fighting."
"Perhaps we can give him something he won't expect. Perhaps you could distract him with magic and I may kill him with my sword."
"No," he said with the firmness one would only expect from a woman. "He is mine to kill, my burden to bear."
We rode on in silence.
We reached the edge of the dark forest in time to break for our mid-day meal and let the horses rest. He had to force them past two pools he claimed were poisoned, traps set by thieves who would then rob stranded travelers. Pushing on we stopped at a clean pool off the main pathway the trail had become.
He made another magical fire and I watched him do with his usually sensual ease while I patted down the horses and checked thunders leg, still healing. We ate more of the bacon, fruit, and bread in a simple meal with fresh cool water.
"Tell me, how does one know they are a sorcerer?"
We sat by the fire that gave no heat as the second sun had risen and the day was quite warm. Once the bacon finished cooking he extinguished it and plated the food.
"When one of us is born, the council feels it and sends a messenger. I was just five days old when my parents learned what I was they happily agreed to the price offered."
"Your parents sold you?"
"They were poor farmers and in need of it. The price was ten times the groom price I would have fetched as an adult. In exchange they agreed never to admit my existence or try to find me.
"I was placed with my master and a nurse who fed me until I was weaned. Then it was just my master and I, just as now it is just me and my apprentice."
"Was he sold too?"
I wondered at that. My father had died when I was young but I still remembered his total and complete love. My mother had been a distant woman, wrapped up in running the estates, politics, and her learning, but she had always let me know I was loved and wanted. I could not imagine a life without the love of parents.
"Did your master love you as a father would?"
"I have no basis to compare but I dare say yes, he did."
"Why did M'Graough kill him?"
His handsome face shuttered. "Rivalries are deep and abiding in my world. It is possible to kill another sorcerer in a duel and absorb all their knowledge."
"He was murdered simply to glean his knowledge?" It wasn't terribly shocking. Long before Serinne had wanted me dead for vengeance she had wanted me dead to take my lands, which bordered hers. She had the greater title but I had greater wealth, and greed was always the strongest motivator.
Tomass nodded. "Knowledge is power in my world, and M'Graough is by far the most powerful sorcerer. He practices all magics, every kind. He will keep on killing and seducing until he is all that is left."
"Seducing?" I had imagined M'Graough as an old wizened man, with mad robes, and a long trailing white beard and shaggy pearlescent hair, hardly the kind to seduce.
"Oh, yes, he is a true wanton."
I had no reply to that. On one hand it did seem a sad life, but he had purpose, and was filled by it, every inch. I quite admired his determination and surprisingly competent manner. Even Donarre had been dependent on women. Wherever he was, I wondered if he was truly free, or a kept pet, and the thought was dismaying.
"So how did you know you were an earless?" he asked with sudden wry humor.
"I carry more titles, some since birth. When I was barely a week old, a portrait of my family was painted, my titles noted. Aside from that I think it was the private schooling and centuries of moldering furniture in the attic."
"You seem quite young for the title."
"I left for war a viscountess; my mother perished while I was away. I have only truly been acting in my official capacity for a single day."
"Were you this serious as a child?"
I laughed now. "Actually I was a thrill-seeker. I turned my mother's hair white with worry. And I was quite a bounder in my later youth. I never had a true, sobering test in my life before the war."