A dire vision is declared to me: The traitor still betrays, and the destroyer still destroys.
Consciousness slowly returned. Amis sat up in a rush. Still the same dark prison cell surrounded him. He groaned. This was the third day of his captivity. His back and shoulders ached from lying on the stone floor. A cold sweat of terror broke out on his forehead. He knit his brows together, thinking hard, trying again to remember something to give him a clue as to why he’d been imprisoned.
Who was that stranger? Amis groaned again, slapping his forehead. He was trapped and no one knew.
In spite of his shouts, no one had come to him. A plate of unappetising food and a pitcher of water were shoved into his cell once per day. Now he heard the noise of many feet coming down the hall. A key turned in the lock, the door opened. A man entered. He was tall and hard bitten with an air of great authority. Something in his face looked familiar to Amis. Many men stood behind him in the doorway. Rian was at his side.
“Is this him?”
“Yes, my Lord Ittai. It is Queen Norea’s son.”
“Do you know why you’re in here, prince?”
Amis shook his head slowly, trying to avoid the giddiness that occurred if he moved it too quickly.
“You were denounced as blaspheming the Fallen One.”
Amis scrunched his face up unbelievingly, “By whom?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the stranger spoke again.
He looked at Rian and Amis couldn’t tell if he liked Rian or not. There was a strange look on his face. He turned back to Amis.
“I am the head of Lord Altor’s personal guard and I believe you can confirm some valuable information that has come to me. If I am satisfied you will be free to go. If not…”
He gestured at Amis’s surroundings.
“What sort of information?” Amis was suspicious and Rian looked smug.
Ittai observed them both with keen, sharp eyes.
“Let’s just say that it will not bode well for your queen mother if you answer poorly. I and my men will give you five minutes alone. Then I will come back with my questions.”
He left and Amis heard the lock click in the door.
“What is this all about Rian?”
Rian looked at him with a mixture of defiance and resentment.
“Only what my queen instructed me to do.”
Amis leapt forward and grabbed the front of his shirt, twisting his fists into the cloth and dragging him up close.
“And what exactly did she tell you to do?” he said through gritted teeth.
“Lord Ittai will tell Altor that the young woman he seeks is at a secret location known as Tetrahin. Proximus will be informed that Noesh is lord of that fortress.”
Amis went white.
“What?” he demanded in horror, “Have you disclosed this information already?”
He tightened his grip on Rian until the collar of his garment squeezed a white ring on the flesh of his neck.
Rian grimaced with a rictus of a smile.
“Already, my Lord Amis,” he choked, “I’ve told Ittai everything already. No need to kill me.”
Amis let him go, and staggered back to lean against the wall. His eyes stared blindly. Rian heaved in a great breath of air and stood rubbing his reddened throat. A terrible fear rose up in Amis. A picture of his uncle Noesh rose up before him, smiling, the light of kindness in his eyes; his Aunt T’ajar binding up a wound when he was a little boy. Those two had done nothing but treat him well. Sem…a lump entered his throat, Sem was like a brother to him.
“What have you done?” he cried, rage and sorrow echoing in his voice.
He was dimly aware of the door opening and Ittai, the head of Altor’s guard, was standing in front of him once more.
Ittai saw Amis’s stricken face and Rian’s red neck and rumpled clothes. Had they but known it, this did more to confirm the veracity of Rian’s information than anything Amis could say.
“So,” he began quietly, “is it true that you are Amis, son of Queen Norea of the Bashani people, our newest ally?”
“I am her son. That much I confirm is true,” his voice was heavy.
He didn’t know how he was going to answer this man. On the one hand if he confirmed all that Rian had, truthfully, said, he would be a low-down betrayer of those who had only done him good. Rija would be given to Altor and Sambeth would be killed. Amis gritted his teeth, thrusting the thought away.
If he refused to confirm he would be a traitor to his mother and his queen. Tetrahin would be doomed anyway, and he would be stuck in this prison cell for life and completely unable to help them in any way. He looked at Ittai under heavy brows.
“I will neither confirm or deny any other part of this man’s story.”
Ittai smiled a wolfish smile, “In her message, Queen Norea said you might be difficult.”
Amis said nothing.
After a brief pause Ittai spoke again, “Are you sure you won’t change your mind?”
In response Amis folded his arms and leaned his shoulders back against the wall, his eyes narrowed in refusal.
Ittai already had what he needed to know. He nodded to one of his men. For the second time in as many days, Amis received a crashing blow to his head. As he lost consciousness he heard Rian protesting.
“That was not part of the queen’s deal.”
Much later Amis rubbed the grit from his eyes. He groaned, rolled over and was nastily sick all over the floor. His eyes focussed on the heavy, wooden door in front of him and travelled around the small bare room. Of Rian, there was no sign. He leapt to his feet and frantically tried the door. Of course it was still locked. He rushed to a small window behind him.
He had to stand on tip toe to peer through its heavy bars. In the predawn gloom he could see parts of the city and beyond it, the shadowy mass of the Endless Forest, dark and brooding. Amis realised he was in the city prison tower. He shivered, his blood turning to ice.
He reached up to the bars of the window. With all his strength he heaved but there was no give in their solid fastness. A noise at the inner door startled him. He saw the grated window in the door slowly opening. Amis stood absolutely still.
“Amis?” A soft whisper sounded through the gap.
It was too high for him to see through. The voice was familiar,
“Yes,” he whispered back.
“Noesh sent me,” the quiet male voice spoke.
Although Amis couldn’t quite place it, it was vaguely familiar. Other voices and footsteps rang in the distance, approaching. A muted exclamation sounded from beyond the door. To his surprise there was a rustle and a pigeon fluttered down from the narrow aperture above it.
It perched on the ground, unhurt, looking at him with bright, dark eyes. The inner window quietly slid shut. Amis scooped up the pigeon. It sat in his hands, unafraid. It must be one of Noesh’s trained carrier pigeons. A small vial lay snug on its back. Amis exclaimed in surprise. With trembling fingers he opened it up. Inside he found a small piece of lead and a tiny scroll of blank paper. The pigeon had to be Noesh’s.
He must act fast. He put lead to paper and scribbled a warning and a confession to his uncle. It took some doing to refasten the tiny vial. His heart, slamming hard in his chest, made his fingers unsteady. Carefully, he scooped up the small soft-eyed creature and held it up to the outer window. With a flutter and a swoop the pigeon scrambled out and took off at unexpected speed.
Amis passed an unsteady hand across his forehead. Noises sounded at the door. In one quick move he tossed the pencil out the window and slumped back on the floor.
Two men entered the room. They were dressed head to foot in black. Their heads were shrouded and the gloom concealed their faces. One beckoned.
“Come,” he ordered.
Amis’s thoughts were racing. These were not prison guards and they weren’t his uncle Noesh’s men either.
Were they taking him away to kill him, with no trial. Amis shuddered. In this place a trial was probably the most fatal path anyway. He got up. The man who had spoken took his arm and flung a hood over his head. They sped him along dark, stinking corridors full of strange noises.
Finally, after much twisting and turning in the dark recesses of the prison hell, they halted, pulling off his hood.
“Go back to your people,” came the terse command and Amis was shoved through a small door.
He stumbled out into the early dawn. The door was shut fast and he was left bewildered in the empty street.
What should he do? He decided to return to the stable of the inn and see if his horse was still there. Then, oddly, he noticed the heavy bulk of his money bag against his side. How strange. He grinned crazily. How on Earth had he managed to come through that ordeal without his money being stolen? His smile faded away. This was getting more and more sinister.
The streets were starting to fill. Shop keepers were opening their stores and putting out their wares on display. Smells of cooking foods wafted around and the noise of movement and conversations began to fill the air. Amis strode along purposefully, his nerves jangling, eyes darting from side to side and over his shoulder.
Yes, they were there. Always hard to spot but definitely there. Two dark figures submerged in the bustling throng, following him. Amis broke into a sweat. What should he do? If he returned to Tetrahin, they would surely follow. If he stayed in the city and Ittai found him and brought him before Altor, he would be doomed. Amis felt giddy with fear and silently cursed Rian, his mother and the day those women fell into the lagoon in front of him.
His heart jumped when a hard hand fell on his shoulder. He looked at the familiar face in momentary confusion. It was Reuben, who had been with Noesh from the start. He had taught Amis many things throughout his childhood. He pulled Amis quickly into a colourful shop full of lengths of fabric, pots and pans and myriad of other household goods.
“Sssshhhh,” Reuben warned softly, a finger over his lips. His dark face was serious, concerned.
He held Amis back, concealed behind bolts of cloth. Amis could see the street from his hidden spot. Less than a minute later, the two darkly dressed men slid past, peering intently around.
Reuben wasted no time. With a quick flip he tossed a gold coin to the shop owner and pulled a travelling cloak around his master’s nephew. Then he hustled a stumbling Amis through the back of the shop, through the house and out onto a back street. Amis was astonished. Quiet Reuben, to whom he had never paid much attention, seemed to know his way around Arca’s back streets as if he had grown up in them.
He cleared his throat, “We should return to the inn and see if the horses are still there.”
“No,” Reuben’s reply was quick and blunt.
Amis swallowed with difficulty, he was weak and feeling nauseous and a big lump was aching on the back of his head.
Reuben continued, “We leave everything behind. There are ordinary travellers’ horses waiting for us. We leave the city immediately.”
“Do you know what has happened?” Amis asked softly.
“What do you mean?” Reuben gave him a hard stare.
“That my mother and Rian have betrayed Tetrahin?”
Reuben stood back and looked Amis full in the face, his eyes searching.
“So that’s your story, is it?” he said finally.
Bitterness pooled under Amis’s tongue, “Why else would I be locked away?”
“For speaking against the Fallen One, I heard.”
Amis lifted a hand, his upper lip curling, “Please, spare me.”
Reuben continued, “Noesh, in his wisdom, sent myself and Resis to follow you, Amis. To keep you safe. The queen, he didn’t trust.”
He looked at Amis with disgust, “I would have left you but I know he would want me to find you and bring you home.”
Amis looked away, the colours of the fabrics around him almost too much for his senses to take after dreary days in the cell. He blinked away a suspicious moisture.
“I have not betrayed my aunt and uncle or my childhood home and I sent that pigeon you threw me and warned them all.”
“Good,” Reuben’s face softened, “I didn’t know the full story, only rumours.”
“How did you get me out of the prison?” Amis asked quietly. These men had risked their lives to save him.
“It took us a long time to find you,” Reuben said, “Resis heard talk of Altor and Proximus planning to leave the city and of a prince locked up in the prison tower after revealing the location of a hidden fortress full of dangerous rebels. Resis got in and gave you the homing pigeon but we’ve no idea how you escaped. We’ve had the prison staked out that’s how I saw you.”
Amis was confused, “How does Resis have horses ready and waiting?”
Reuben gave him a hard look, “We were preparing to depart for Tetrahin to warn the family, leaving you to your fate.”
“You’ve wasted too much time already,” Amis’s was stern, “and now that I have my breath back, let’s not waste any more. We’ve got to move fast to get around Altor and the Fallen One and get back to Tetrahin first.”
Minutes later they were mounted on obscure animals and passing through the city gates amidst a throng of seasoned travellers. Ittai’s two dark assassins searched the city high and low for Amis but in vain. Amis had vanished into thin air.
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