Gah. You guys are catching uppppppp. -_- =P
~Chapter Twenty One~
Wild, Untamable Hearts
We stood in anticipation far below the darkened window waiting for…we knew not what. Aranel was silent again, gazing up in the blackness. The rain blew against her face, making it shine when the wind tore a rent in the clouds, revealing a dim star and the edge of the moon. A moment later, the wind shifted and blew the clouds together again, closing off even that brief source of light once more. Suddenly, a soft noise reached my ears from above, and I strained my eyes in the night, trying to catch a glimpse of what we went to meet. I caught my breath as I saw two slim white hands on the windowsill. They let a thin rope ladder down, sliding gently against the rough stone of the great wall, and then disappeared. It jerked slightly, and Aranel nodded to us, catching the end where it dangled at eyelevel. Bracing her feet against the wall, she pulled herself up to the first slippery rung of rope and began to ascend.
I stepped back, watching her climb like a spider up the thin line and disappear into the dark opening above. Netya reached out, and I grasped her hand, squeezing tightly. “I don’t know what we’re going up to,” I whispered softly, my apprehension made obvious in the quaver of my voice. “But…we’ve made it this far, Netya. We’ve made it this far.”
She nodded and looked at me, but the rain on her face hid her tears if she cried. Turning suddenly, she hugged me fiercely. I smiled, hugging her back. I heard her sigh, and she said softly, “I wish we were back beneath our own castle walls right now.”
“So do I,” I answered, pulling away and looking her in the eyes. “We aren’t, not yet…but once we find Thalon…he will take us home.”
I looked up again, waiting for Aranel’s sign for us to follow. The rain blocked out any muffled sounds I may have heard. It was as though we waited, Netya and I, in a world of running water and thunder, for some sign of life and breath to reach us from a cold, dead void. I shivered at the thought.
Finally, my eyes detected movement at the window again. I saw Aranel’s face as she leaned out, the hood of her cloak pushed back to reveal her wet hair. She motioned for us to come, and I exchanged a glance with Netya. She nodded, and I held the dangling end of the rope ladder steady as she pulled herself up and began to climb. As Netya reached the top, Aranel reached out, grabbing her arms and helping her in through the window. I was alone at the bottom of the ladder.
Taking a deep breath, I took the ladder in my hands as I had seen Aranel do, twisting the rope around my hands as high up as I could reach and bracing my feet against the wet rock of the wall. I struggled to pull myself up to the bottom rung, my hands and feet slipping on the rain-soaked rope and stone. Finally, I managed to catch my foot on the rope and stand shakily up, swaying wildly as the ladder moved beneath me without someone to hold it still. Carefully, I placed one foot above the other, moving slowly, painfully up the side of the wall. For a moment I looked back over my shoulder. I could see nothing in the darkness and rain, but knew if it had been light, I would have been able to see far, clear over the tops of the forest trees below.
As I reached the window, much larger than it had appeared from the ground, Aranel took my hand and pulled me up, through the opening and onto the wide sill. I slid down into the dark room and stood for a moment, getting my bearings again and letting the dizziness of the frighteningly high climb dissipate. When my head cleared, I looked around me. It was dark as pitch in the room, but I could feel Netya standing beside me, and knew Aranel stood nearby too.
Suddenly I sensed another presence in the room moving stealthily. I heard the striking of a flint, and my eyes were dazzled by the sudden spark created. A small flame, flickering in the draft from the window, sprouted up in the darkness and grew steadily stronger. My eyes burned from the sudden light, so used as they were to straining through the darkness outside. When my sight cleared, I drew in my breath, stepping unconsciously back away from she who stood before me.
Aranel’s eyes were fixed in triumphant satisfaction on my face as I surveyed Lastare, for so I assumed the woman must be. She did not wear a woman’s dress, but rather a tunic and leggings such as Pethnor’s men wore, with the sun-devouring lynx on a sable field emblazoned on her breast. Her tunic was not black, however, as the others I had seen. It glared blood red before my eyes. Her hair, so black it almost seemed to shimmer phosphorescent blue in the lamplight, was cropped short, jagged around the strong, willful line of her jaw. A large cat, black and fierce, stood twining around her ankles. She blinked at me, a scornfully cruel and wild smile playing about her lips. I struggled to look down, but she locked my gaze in hers, and I could not tear away from her stare. Her eyes were a strange shade almost of gold, like the cat’s, and they fascinated my unwilling senses.
She stood shorter than I by a few inches at least, and yet the ferocity and strength of her challenging stare gave her the appearance of being much greater than her height proclaimed. Although she did not appear outwardly much older than Aranel, a hidden air of strength and power coursed behind the brightness of her gaze, speaking of the knowledge and craft that come with many years of dangerously wild life.
Finally the woman laughed, unhidden contempt in her voice, and flicked her gaze away from me, staring instead at Netya. I looked down, gasping, feeling as though I had been held underwater beneath the fire of her eyes.
When I looked up again, I saw Aranel, still smiling with a wicked conquering gleam at me. I looked away coldly. As neither Aranel nor Lastare seemed interested in making any sort of introduction, I sighed and stepped forward again, getting Lastare’s attention and pulling her wild stare away from Netya, who sighed in relief. “I don’t know what Aranel has said to you,” I spoke, looking uncertainly between her and Lastare, “But…My name is Alasse. This is Netya. Aranel brought us to you because–”
Lastare waved her hand impatiently, cutting me off. “Yes. She brought you to me because it’s the only way to get inside the walls unseen, and I happen to have an…agreement with her in regards to her use of my window. If that were not the reason you came, you would have gone in by the gates. Or you’d have been dragged in by the gates. Either way. It makes no difference. Tell me now why I should not call in the guard that waits just a shout away. Or why I should not let you leave the same way you came…just faster, and without the use of my ladder?” she smiled cruelly, an unnerving light playing in her golden eyes. Her voice was as wild as the cat that still sat between her feet, fur rising as it growled low and softly.
Aranel spoke up, turning back towards the window. “Before you begin your tale, Alasse…I have done as I promised to do. I will not come further. I will not say I am sorry at our parting, as I do not know you well. Do not come to me when you leave…an you leave. As I have told you, you will be unwelcome at my door. And I do not hesitate to make my hostility known to those who are unwelcome.” She looked meaningfully at Netya and I, stepping up onto the wide sill of the window.
Netya nodded. “Thank you for bringing us so far. We couldn’t have come here without your help…You have been as a friend to us, Aranel.”
She laughed scornfully. “Friend. I do not know of what you speak, girl. I am a Wanderer. Friendship is nothing to me.” She slipped down over the edge of the window and was gone.
Lastare motioned us impatiently away from the wide window, drawing a thick curtain over it and blocking out the wind and rain that spattered the sill and the floor nearby. I glanced quickly about the room while her back was turned, trying to form an idea in my head of just the sort of place Netya and I had come to. The walls and floor were stone, cold and unadorned save for the array of many different strange weapons that hung against the wall opposite us. A bookshelf stood beside the window, the worn leather spines of the volumes bespeaking constant use. The titles had long since been worn off, rubbed once too often against an eager palm. In the corner, a deep armchair stood before a cold, empty hearth. A book was overturned on its arm, marking the place where the reader had left it. Other than the chair and the shelves, there was little in the way of furnishings in the small, narrow room. Up above me, an opening in the ceiling was covered over with an old wooden door. A ladder leaned against the end of the bookcase.
Turning around swiftly, Lastare caught me looking at the weapons hanging on the wall. Laughing, she reached up and took down a strangely fashioned sword. It glinted in the light of the lamp she held in her other hand. She swung it in a whistling circle above her head, spinning it around and through her fingers. The cat hissed and jumped aside onto the back of the armchair, where it sat like a watchdog, following Netya and I with its eyes.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Lastare asked, putting the sword back in its place and running a finger down the flat edge of the blade. “And every one of them I can wield.”
I shifted my weight from my left foot to my right, making the line of the sword beneath my cloak stand out more visibly against the fabric. Crossing my arms, I stared into Lastare’s golden eyes.
She smiled humorlessly. “Ah…I see. Well come, before we draw our blades and go to it, shall you not at least tell me the reason Aranel brought you here? All you look fit for is the dungeons…or the clutches of one of my husband’s men. But I don’t believe you have come here for that. What do you have to ask of Lastare, queen of the sun-devouring army of Pethnor? Aranel said it had something to do with captives. I assume you know I helped her to escape here once…I do not agree with the holding of young women as prisoners, or worse. Not out of the kindness of my stone heart, but out of…jealousy.” She spoke the last word softly, twisting it in her mouth into a vision of horror and hate. “So. I am in a good mood tonight, despite the late hour. My books have kept me amused, and I am willing to hear your request. Judging by the petrified looks on your white faces, you’re here because you wish to act the hero and set free one of these captives Aranel mentioned. Because I like her, and because your little play at bravery amuses me, I may help you. I am in the mood for watching someone die…” she trailed off, smiling wickedly.
I glanced at Netya, uncertain how to proceed. She sighed. We both knew it would not be easy to relate our story in a way that would cause Lastare to help us, yet if she did not, we would be taken to the same dungeon in which Thalon probably lay. Only, we would be in chains.
I took a deep breath and began our tale, speaking hesitantly and briefly, and watching Lastare’s face for any signs of anger or other emotion. “Yes…Aranel told you truly. Quite plainly, we came because our friend is here. He has ever stood up for us in danger, and we cannot leave him to die here without trying to help…” I trailed off, realizing how incredible and absurd it was for me to be speaking such things to a woman who belonged so intimately to the man we were pitting our very lives against.
She looked at me, a spark of knowing swimming beneath the hostility in her eyes. A spark of knowing, nearly akin to pity. When she spoke, her voice had lost the wildness and become the grieving voice of a mother. “I know what it is to lose someone you love,” she said softly, turning her back to us and walking past us to the chair, absently fondling the cat’s head between her hands. “Yes, I know what pain that brings. My heart says I wish to help you in gaining back that which you lost…that which you love. Yet I do not even know your full tale yet. Why should I release to you a prisoner that we have taken? And who is the one you have come to save? Tell me, what is his name,” she asked, glancing back at us for a moment.
Netya spoke softly beside me. “There is no reason that you should help us. No reason you should help, save for the common bond that you have found we share in our loss. The name…his name…His name is Thalon.”