The walls of the Splinter Rock shook, the ancient gatehouse of the mountain passes shuddering under a renewed assault. Cole felt the battlements quake beneath his feet. The catapult stones were not arcing in across the alpine valley anymore. Instead, it was as if someone was pulling at the strings of creation to render the quarried granite walls to dust.
Across the courtyard, the sergeant at arms threw his weight against the door of the inner keep. The iron-bound timbers hardly budged, and the sturdy man came away rubbing his shoulder. He jogged back across the castle baily.
“The keep’s been barred from the inside,” he called out.
“Looks like his lord left him behind to die with the rest of us,” the scrawny Slateland youth Cole had encountered on the ramparts spat. “Fled through the back gate with all his men once he knew he was beaten.”
“This isn’t the time,” Cole cautioned. “Someone out there in the royal camp is using the First Language to bring these walls down, so you and yours need to get out of here.”
“There’s no way out. The back gate is through the inner keep. When the Duke barred those doors behind him, he sealed our fate.” The tremors running through the battlements had become stronger. Nearby a stone shook loose from the masonry and tumbled to the pavers below.
“There is a way, but for now let’s get off these ramparts.”
Long fractures were snaking their way across the wall as Cole and the other Slatelander hurried down the stone stairs to the courtyard.
* * *
As the last of the peasant levies and the soldiers left behind by the rebel duke vanished into the nighted maze of the drainage tunnels, the gaunt Slatelander paused next to the tracker. The young man was unmistakably familiar with his severe features, pate of thinning blonde hair, and the incisive quality of his speech. Cole should have asked him then.
“You’re coming with us, aren’t you?”
“I can’t.” The tracker shook his head. Across the courtyard, the wall was crumbling, breaking apart in chunks under the pressure of an unseen force.
“You have to. Whatever you were before, you’re a traitor and an outlaw now.” The young man’s tone was insistent. “You used your magic to save us, and they won’t forget that. You stay here, and you’re dead.”
There was reason in this, and Cole saw it. He may have been a Pact Keeper’s apprentice just hours ago, but he’d given that up when he spared those conscript farmers from the blades of the king’s men. Without a word he followed the other man into the darkened passage.
The tracker looked back as the wall fell, a stormfront of dust and stone chips fanning out across the fortress grounds. He stopped in the twilight entrance to the tunnels for just a moment and saw a figure emerging through the cloud of debris. Long robes flowed about her, and she carried herself with an air of purpose. She was looking for her enemy, shoulders drawn pack and sharp gaze darting across the grounds of the ruined castle. Cole was already gone, though, the tracker withdrawing into the darkened recesses of the tunnels beneath the fortress.
* * *
Night found the little band on the eastern side of mountains, the long shadows of the peaks creeping out into the wide plains beyond the kingdom. Gravel scree covered the slopes, swaths of loose rock that shifted underfoot. Patches of desiccated sage endured the rainless months, wind whipped foliage clinging tightly to the scant soil with hungry tenacity.
On the barren mountainside the only cover to be had was between the tapered ridges that formed the ribs of this barrel-chested mountain range. It was in one of these narrow draws that Cole made camp with peasant rebels and the dregs of a traitor lord’s garrison. The Sergeant, his name was Burl, piled broken sagebrush by a firepit they’d scrapped out in the rocky ground. The gaunt Slatelander gave Cole a sidelong look.
“You really think we should have a fire, out here and with an army after us? Won’t we be discovered?”
“Not likely.” Cole perched on a granite boulder and watched the activity of the camp. “It will get cold out here, and your people will need it. Besides, they can keep it burning low and the smoke won’t show against the night sky.”
The other man leaned back against the boulder, elbows resting on the edge. “Just who in Yearn’s domain are you? With your magic and your secret paths, I’m apt to think you’re some kind of wild spirit or elf-kin.”
“You first. What’s your name?”
“It’s Thrace.” The gaunt youth paused. “Thrace of Kedenberg. It’s a small town in the foothills.”
“I know the place, passed there through once. How do a bunch of farmers end up holding the Splinter Rock against the crown’s army?”
Thrace laughed. The sound was sharp and biting. “It’s the same story that played out all across the Slatelands this year. Duke Teagan sent riders to every town and village to tell everyone that he’d named himself king over all the high country. As his first act, he would let us keep a better share of our crop. We loved him for that, for it had been three hungry years of poor harvests by that time. We flocked to fight for him”. There was bile in Thrace’s voice as he recounted the early months of the secession, known in Cole’s own time as the Autumn War.
“But it didn’t last?”
“No. before the end of the season, Teagan’s army was on the run. Every castle between the River Vale and the passes was a shattered ruin and every village the site of a massacre. Holding the Slinter Rock was our last chance.”
“Hush a moment.” Cole held up a warning hand. There was a sound carrying on the wind, the far-off rattle of granite scree shifting under boots. He gestured for Thrace to stay put, crouched low, and climbed to the lip of the draw where they hid. The tracker peered out across the mountainside, and spied indistinct shapes picking their way along the mountainside from the direction of the Slinter Rock.
Thrace came up beside him as the distant forms resolved themselves into soldiers, spears resting on shoulders and conical helmets bobbing as they crossed the gravel slope. The robed woman was with them as well, the glow of a spell ribbon lighting her features as it burned itself out between pale fingers.
“They’re tracking you using a spell.” Cole whispered to the other Slatelander. “Get as far from here as you can. I’ll catch up.”
“There’s a trail nearby. Follow it into the peaks to the Way Shrine of Solace. We’ll meet you there.” Thrace slid back from the lip of the draw and joined the rest of his band where they’d been piling firewood.
Looking out into the welling night, Cole watched as the robed Pact Keeper took another spell ribbon from a sheaf on her hip and let the linen flare to life in her upraised hand. He wondered if there was another Pact Keeper who could be so much like his master, and he knew in his heart that there was not.