The boulder jutted into the path, cutting it off until someone had carved their own path around it. From the looks of the trees growing in and around it, it had fallen over a hundred years ago, but Deline could still see how the path had been warped. It meant that until they came to the sharp edge of the stone, they couldn’t see anything ahead of them.
Carrone stepped ahead of her and she let him, her slingshot ready. He hissed and took a step back, an arrow flying over his shoulder.
Deline grabbed a handful of components from her hip pack and began a spell under her breath. Just as she was starting to speak, a voice boomed from the far side of the boulder.
“Traitor of Halor and Traitor of the Empire. There is no survival, there is no escape.”
The accent was Deklegion. “There are no traitors here,” Deline called. She cursed herself; now she was going to have to start the spell all over again.
“At least fifty,” Carrone murmured. “Someone has to have seen them coming through; they look like a military unit, but no insignia. Run?”
She shook her head and continued the spell. Her hands flung out and the shields went up over their shoulders and around their bodies. “They called us traitors,” she muttered.
Carrone lifted his voice as Deline began the next spell. “You’re intruding on Imperial Land. Are you declaring war?”
“Nah.” The answer was far, far too casual. Deline wanted to tense, but she needed to focus on the spell. “This is just a clean-up operation. Nobody needs to know. You two, you’ll be gone and then we’ll be gone.”
“You’re bringing Deklegion troops onto Imperial soil-”
“Carrone.” The voice was Teshone’s. Carrone gritted his teeth. “Don’t make this worse than it needs to be. Surrender, and they said they’ll let you live.”
“They can’t, Tesh. They’re lying to you.”
Deline sprinkled another handful of herbs. This was the last of her stash. It had better work, or – well, she supposed it if didn’t, she wouldn’t be worried about her herbs too much afterwards.
She noticed there were things that Carrone wasn’t saying, like you’re about to kill the Emperor’s wife and if you kill her, I die. She could see sound strategic reasons for not saying those things and wondered if those were his reasons, or if he didn’t want to admit that he was, for one, bound to the wife of the Emperor.
She tossed out one handful of powder and pushed Carrone behind her.
“They’re not lying, Carrone, it’s not a lie. Just come out here and you’ll be fine. But your little friend, she did some pretty awful things to the Deklegion.”
“Did she? Or did they just blame them on a target who embarrassed them? Come on, Tesh, you know governments lie.”
She gathered a handful of pebbles and threw them around the boulder with the last of the words of the spell and Carrone’s parting words. An arrow flew out, scraping her arm. She let herself fall backwards into Carrone’s arm, biting back a curse, as the pebbles exploded into a cloud of tiny shards, smoke, and haze. The nature of the spell meant that all of this went the way the pebbles had been going — towards the attackers.
“How bad?” Carrone muttered.
Deline looked at the arm. The scrape had ripped through her flesh but not gotten into muscle. “Fine if it’s not poisoned.”
“It’s Deklegion. They do nasty stuff to their arrows. How long does that thing give us?”
“Count of sixty, seventy, before it starts to dissipate.”
“Come on.” He picked her up before she could even think of protesting, heading up and into the forest. Deline counted silently; he found a place to stop when she had reached forty-five.
He set her down behind a much smaller boulder and dug into his bag. Sixty-five — She could hear shouts from the distance. A moment later he slapped something wet and slick on her wound and wrapped it tightly.
“We left a blood trail,” he muttered, “but I wasn’t trying to hide so much as give us space. Stay here, get your next magery set up.”
She didn’t comment on the fact that he was giving her orders; something was tingling weirdly in her arm. She sat up, reached into her pouches, and, finding them nearly empty, cast around for something she could use in a spell.
There were some early ramps — that was more dinner than spells — and some skunk cabbage, a few spring apples and a plant that she only knew as Mother’s Tears.
That – well, it wasn’t ideal, but it would work. There were some pebbles, too, tiny little stones barely the size of her fingernail. She couldn’t pull off the spell she’d just done, not without three ingredients she was now out of, but with mother’s tears and — “Hemlock,” she hissed. “Do you have hemlock?”
From his position a few dozen feet away, Carrone jerked like he’d been struck. “Why would I-“
“Tell — because I can get us out of this with hemlock.”
She’d forgotten there were a few plants the Halorans considered taboo – it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have poisons, but hemlock itself was one of the ones that carried a nasty death sentence for even possessing.
Thankfully (although she probably could have talked them out of the death sentence if she had to), not in the Empire.
She gathered all the Mother’s-Tears flowers she could and grabbed up a double handful of the whole plant, too, while he fumbled in his pack. Another curse word had him hurrying back to her.
“They’re coming. Can you move?” He had an arm around her, helping her up, even as he pressed a small packet into her hand.
“Yeah, it’s just an arrow graze.” She eyed the terrain and gestured towards an outcropping not too far away. Uphill the whole way, yes, but not that far uphill.
“Yeah, yes. I left some gifts for them-” He paused and scattered something behind him. “Should give us a little more-“
An arrow thudded in a tree near them, followed by some cursing. They hurried, weaving through the trees, as the cursing turned up in pitch and volume.
“Gift one,” he muttered.
“Remind me not to get you angry with me.”
“Don’t–” A small explosion followed. He smiled grimly. “They call that salamander dust.”
She glanced behind them at the obscuring cloud of smoke. Fire lapped out of the thick black fog. “I see why.”
“Here, behind this–” He gestured at the boulder in front of them. “And I’ll set up another gift.”
“You know, I –” She trailed off. “Thanks. You’re good at this.”
“Yeah, well.” He shepherded her behind the boulder and stepped back out, out of her sight.
She took the moment to start working on another spell. She felt fine, but she supposed he was picturing the arrow getting just a little bit closer. She stayed standing, back against the rock, and chanted as quietly as she could in a combination of Old Bear and the oldest tongue of the Fox, since they were in Her mountains. She had to substitute out some sand for the powder she wanted and some water from her canteen for the proper water from a spring, but she was willing to try just about anything now.
She made a paste of the flowers, the sand, and the water and drew a circle in the ground. A scream and several shouts came from the direction of their attackers.
She made another circle outside of that one as an explosion set several trees on fire.
“Sorry about that,” Carrone murmured, too close to her. “But it’s going to do them a lot of damage.”
“As long as we get out of here before there’s a real fire.”
“Well, it’s that or it’s someone else’s problem.” He patted her back. “Doing okay?”
“Almost done. Watch the circles.” She finished a third circle with a flourish and a sprinkling of the last of her diamond dust. With a wave of her hand, she gestured him into the center of the circles. “One more.”
She chanted low and quiet, not letting herself get distracted by the sparks and moans and yelps from their attackers. She added a bit of coal to her last circle, drawing it around the boulder and all of the interior circles.
She called on the Fox and Mother Bear as she stepped over one circle; she called on her own claws and her own cleverness on the second one, on the power of the Empire’s throne as she stepped over the penultimate circle, and as she stepped in to the smallest circle – as wide around as her spread arms and including one old oak tree – she called on the land itself. With a final flourish, she sealed the circles.
A scream and shouting punctuated the twist of her hands.
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