Fragrant smoke wafted over Cole as he sat cross-legged by the crackling brushwood fire. He warmed his palms against the flames and rested his uneasy gaze on the lip of the ravine. Above, the stars turned slowly across the darkened sky, remote and silent in their arc. The only sound was the slide and rattle of loose gravel on the mountainside, growing ever louder as the Royal Army’s pursuit closed in. At any moment, Cole thought, he would see his mentor Eleanor at the crest of that draw.
“My future mentor,” he corrected himself. Since the peasant rebels and the remnants of the Splinter Rock’s garrison had gone ahead into the winding paths of the higher peaks, Cole had taken the time to think. He knew that the renegade, Thrace, had used the Lexicon of Ages and his knowledge of the First Language to escape. From Eleanor, he also knew that this lexicon held words of power that could affect the passing of years and the span of a man’s life. The truth had settled upon him as he sat there. Thrace had fled into his own past, carrying them both back to the days of rebellion Eleanor had called the Autumn War. A Slateland tracker only lately schooled in the ways of magic, Cole turned the explanation over in his head. Though it was strange to him, he could find no fault with it.
“For where the tracks lead, there lies the quarry,” he murmured.
Unfastening the button on the deer hide pouch at his waist, Cole dug out a stack of linen strips bound in sinew twine, a stick of charcoal wedged between the bindings. After the spell he’d wrought to shore up the walls of the Splinter Rock, Eleanor would be on the hunt for a user of the First Language. She would not find one here, though. With a long breath he steeled himself and dropped the wadded linen into the coals. The edges of the cloth blackened and curled in the heat.
Granite scree rattled down from the far edge of the embankment and broad-shouldered shadows massed at the top of the draw. Their features were indistinct in the starlight, but the pincushion thicket of their spear-tips stood out clearly against the sky. There was an uneasy stillness, weighted with the threat of violence. Pike hafts grated against gravel and and the steel rims of shields clinked against one another. Cole did not rise from the fire, knowing with a surety that it would be death to do so now. Instead, he gave the nighted battle line an easy wave, watching them with purposeful disinterest.
Their ranks shifted, and from their gathering a slight figure emerged to lower herself down the side of the draw. The firelight played across Eleanor’s woolen robes as she slid gracelessly down the embankment, keeping her footing by the barest margin. The staff that had always borne her weight was absent from her hand, but her familiar spell folio still hung from its bronze chain about her waist. There was no silver in her tightly wound braids to reflect the firelight. Instead, a rich auburn diffused the glow.
She stumbled to a stop at the bottom of the draw some dozen yards from the tracker and straightened herself, squaring her birdlike shoulders. She addressed Cole in a stern tone in which he recognized hints of the authority with which she would speak in years to come.
“I am a Pact Keeper, and an agent of the king’s peace. You will tell me who you are, Slatelander.”
He gave her his name. “I hunt game on these slopes,” he explained. The tracker’s eyes-strayed to the soldiers still gathered at the top off the draw.
“I never asked about your livelihood,” Eleanor noted crisply. She approached the fire, and Cole glimpsed a pair of spell ribbons trailing from between her fingers. “A user of the First Language passed through here; I know this. He passed through here in the company of rebel serfs and outlaws. Can you tell me anything about that, Cole?”.
Accustomed to reading sign and spore, Cole couldn’t help but see the marks of the rebels’ passing all through the draw: trodden brush and scattered stones. He had to remind himself that Eleanor’s talents were not the same as his, and that she might be blind to what he saw easily.
“I don’t know anything about that, Lady Pact Keeper.” He looked at her wide-eyed in feigned confusion.
“Don’t lie.” Eleanor shook her head in disapproval. “I traced a user of the First Language here with my own magic. Is it you?” Her grey eyes flicked down to meet Cole’s.
He shook his head.
With her empty left hand, she reached for a broken sage branch and fished the smoldering sheaf of linen from the coals. Packed tightly together, the fabric was charred but not wholly rendered to ash. She turned it over in the gravel with the end of the stick.
“Indulge me,” she urged. “What is the task of a Pact Keeper?”
“It’s to preserve the king’s peace and guards his people.” Cole answered just as Eleanor would later teach him. He knew his mistake immediately.
“An apprentice’s verse, word for word. Just who are you, some outcast of the order?” She’d stepped back from the fire.
“Not an outcast, I was trained by a Pact Keeper,” Cole tried to keep his voice calm, but he was keenly aware of the danger he was in. He started to get to his feet, but Eleanor raised the hand from which the two spell ribbons hung.
“You acted against the Crown during the siege.” Her tone was biting, accusatory.
“I acted according to the code I was taught, to guard the people of the realm.”
“Plead your good intentions to the order”. The ends of the spell tapers ignited as Eleanor spoke a hurried incantation: soil—bind.
The spell was one Cole had seen the Pact Keeper use, and he was on his feet before the last syllable passed her lips. The ground where he’d sat erupted, peppering them both with gravel. As the stones clattered down around them, he spun and sprinted downslope. If I can cross into the next gully, he reasoned, I can lose her.
An archer’s arrow whizzed past and skipped off the scree ahead of him. It was followed by an avalanche of footfalls as the rest of Pact Keeper’s patrol stormed into the draw after him. Ahead, the slope of the draw was gentler, and the Slateland youth darted up it. If he could put the lip of the draw between himself and his pursuers and cut upslope, he’d have a chance.
He gained the top of the draw, and dropped out of sight. He’d have only the space of a few breaths before the first royal soldier came up after him. He turned upslope, and froze.
Illuminated by the starlight, Cole could see the slight figure of Eleanor waiting for him.
“Yield to me Slatelander. I won’t ask again.” She paced towards him. Her men were scrambling out of the draw, the first just an arm’s length from the lip.
A cloudbank passed high above, smudging the faint glow of the stars for a precious moment. Swathed in sudden darkness, Cole wheeled and plunged down slope. When the cloud had passed, he was well away.