EXTRACTS FROM
EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
THE STORY OF BROTHER JOHN

 

PAGE 9

The walk was quick, and as they approached the rendezvous point, she gave a few loud owl-like hoots in a particular pattern, warning their friends that they were on their way.

Before they got too close to the monastery walls, John laid his hand on Rowena's arm in a signal for her to slow down. "I should scout ahead and find the others, make sure it's safe," he told her. "If Audra's got her hands on that scroll, it's quite likely that she knows what we're planning and has posted guards in the area to wait for us..."

"And you'd be the first person they'd be looking out for, Brother John," Prentis interrupted. "Let me go on ahead. I'm the only member of this little band of fugitives who doesn't have a price on his head at the moment..."

John glowered at the lad. "You're also the one person our friends wouldn't recognise," he snapped.

"But I'd know them," Prentis retorted. "Trust me John - you don't cross over to the next realm and then return to life without picking up some heightened... what shall I say... intuition."  He gave an insolent smile. "You'd be surprised what I can sense about a person just from being near them..."

John continued to glower, irritated by the child's use of the familiar form of his name and his insolent manner.

Prentis flashed an equally cheeky smile at Rowena. "Wait here, Sis," he said, because he knew it would ruffle her feathers. "I'll be back."  He moved to step past her...

Rowena grabbed Prentis by the hair before he could take more than a step, tugging hard and holding him back. "No you bloody won't. I told you I wasn't letting you out of my sight," she hissed furiously. "You'll stay here and do what you're told if you don't want to find yourself bound & gagged and dragged along behind the horse. I'm not having you running off and warning Audra's guards we're here."

Prentis turned his eyes toward her and bared his teeth in an almost feral growl. But she was far stronger than he was and there was nothing he could do to escape her grasp.

*I'll go,* Faran snorted. *We've got better things to do than bicker* He didn't wait for an answer, just trotted off along the road...

Gem looked at Daniel with a roll of her eyes. Both of them were laden with masks and clothing, Daniel paying special attention to the cane in his hand. The pair sneaked quietly out of the overgrowth towards the group of arguing ‘heroes’. "With that much racket, no one will have to warn Audra's guards of your approach," Gemile muttered as they stepped into the crowd.
 
Faran reared up, startled by the people appearing right beside him. Very quiet for humans. He snorted once he recognised them, and wondered if Rowena would be annoyed if he bit them.
 
"Bloody hell," Rowena muttered to herself. Surely this whole venture was doomed to failure. They couldn't even keep themselves quiet out on the road. How would they manage to get into the castle? *And no, you can't bite them,* she snapped at the horse.

Daniel smirked behind her as they passed costumes out respectively. "We've brought a special accessory for Brother John." He pulled the handle of the cane with a strong tug just enough to reveal the blade within. "It might come in useful. I keep it at the inn in case things get... out of hand," he smiled.
 
John took the proffered weapon with a smile of gratitude. He felt an instant sense of relief at finally being armed with something more than Rowena's little dagger. "Thank you, my friend," he murmured.

Glad as she was to see them, Rowena didn't want to waste too much time on talk. "Told you he'd remember you need a weapon," she whispered to John, with a poke in his ribs. She surveyed the black gown and mask she'd been given and wondered where on earth Gem had managed to get it. It was certainly impressive. "It's good to see you," she said. "Where've you left the others?"

"Back up the road, closer to the Abbey," Daniel chuckled. "Only a minute away."

Gemile smiled at her friend. "I'd ask that you be especially careful, but I know you well. So I've brought a costume for myself so I can watch your back," she offered, holding up a dark violet mask in front of her face.

The Flame glanced around, feeling as if something were missing. "Warren," she murmured, "where's Alexa?"

"With John and the other bloke," he replied automatically, looking around for the child. A heartbeat later he realised she wasn't there, and a wave of panic flowed over him. "Where's Alexa?!" he called to the monk loudly, giving no thought to staying secret...

John turned to see who the bald warrior was addressing and was surprised to find it was he himself that was being addressed. He frowned. "The little girl that was in the cellar with us?" he said. "I haven't seen her since I left the secret room. I assumed you'd left her there where we found her..."

Warren was beyond furious. "She followed you... and him..." he pointed at Antonio, "back at the Inn. She was right behind you. You can't have left her behind back there all alone!"

John's skin began to prickle the way it does when something suddenly goes horribly wrong. "If she did follow me, I certainly wasn't aware of it..." he replied, because there wasn't much else he could say. "Who does she belong to? Didn't she have parents or a guardian of some kind, at the inn?  Surely someone is responsible for her...?"

Though he had no hair left to run his fingers through, habit forced Warren to run his hands over his bald head instead. "She's... she's... I don't know who her real parents are," he admitted angrily. "I've sort of been looking after her the past few days. Audra's after her as surely as any of us. We have to go back for her!"

Rowena listened to all this, shaking her head. "Well, we're heading back to town as soon as we've made a quick stop at the Abbey," she assured him. "If you and your friends want to go on ahead of us, feel free."

Warren looked at his lover, his sister, and the mage he was coming to rely on. "What do you think?" he asked them. The Flame was the first to speak up. "Love, you need to find Alexa," she murmured, touching his arm. It hurt, physically hurt, to say those words. "I will go where you will, a chroi." 

"What is this child to you?" Lorcan asked quietly. "If she is important enough to you, you will know what to do."

"She might as well be my own child," Warren murmured. "I must go after her."

Prentis, standing sulkily to one side and rubbing the sore spot on his scalp where Rowena had yanked his hair, cast a speculative eye over the bald man, wondering why the warrior would not admit that the little girl was indeed his own child. Unless, somehow, he didn't know...

"Perhaps I should come, too," Rio said. "My magic would surely come in handy."  She then turned to Sorcha, not wanting to offend her brother's love. "I don't mean to say that your magic is useless, but I don't want to see you hurt again. I'm sure you're still weak."

The Flame stared at the girl for a full second before letting out a soft bark of humourless laughter. "Useless, indeed," she said. "I have no magic... my Power is lost to me..."

Warren hugged her close. "Not for long, precious. Your cure is near at hand." He turned to Rowena. "It seems our paths separate here. I wish you well in your endeavours this night. Should all go well, and Sorcha's cure be successful, know that we will join in the fight on your side."

Rowena nodded. "May you be as successful, sir. Gem!" she called. "Do you have anything our friends here can wear to get into the Ball?"

On sudden impulse, John took a stride forward and extended his hand in friendship to the warrior. He still wasn't entirely convinced that getting The Flame's powers back for her was a good idea... but he had so much else to worry about right now that he had to adopt a strategy of risk management, and accept that these people were going to do what they thought was right. "I too, wish you success," he said as he held out his hand. "I'm sure you'll find the little lass safe and sound in Barbarella's care, at the inn..."

Warren was grateful for the man's confidence, and gripped his hand. "Thank you, brother," he replied sincerely. "I hope that by the end of the night, we might sit down and share a jug of ale together, and toast our success."

The Flame paid the monk little heed as worry began to niggle at her. She could see no way of getting into the dungeons unless they were taken prisoner... and if by some miracle they managed that, there was the problem of the ritual...

She felt Lorcan's hand on her shoulder. "All will be well, little owl," he murmured in their native tongue.

"I want to believe you," she replied in the same language, somewhat surprised that she could still manage it after so long speaking Outlandish. "But my fears grow..."
 
Warren caught the tail end of the exchange, and pulled Sorcha close to his side. "Don't be afraid, love. With Lorcan's help, I'm sure we'll manage. And we have Rio with us too, and the distraction of this Ball... we'll have no problems tonight." He spoke more confidently than he felt, but there was no point letting his fears get the better of him. They had to make the attempt, and therefore nothing would stop him. He looked over to Rowena, nodded farewell, and then around to all the others. "May your gods grant you victory." Then he turned to go...

The Flame mustered a smile. "May Brighid, fiery arrow of victory, be with you," she murmured, not sure how the monk would take a Clan blessing.

John hesitated for a moment - though his hesitation was due not so much to the blessing as to its source. "And with you," he replied at last. But in the back of his mind he simply prayed to his own God that this woman would prove to be as changed as she pretended to be, and that no evil would befall any of them at her hands. "We'll, uh... see you on the inside, I suppose."  He graced her with a friendly smile and turned to rejoin his own friends.

"Okay," he said to them. "Let's get this over with..."

Seeing Warren begin to lead his little company back down the road, Rowena turned back to the matter at hand. "Right," she agreed. "Antonio... you said I need to retrieve this package from the Abbott. Do I need it before we break into the Castle? It won't take long for Faran to take me to the Abbey & back, but I'm in a hurry, and I don't want to slow things down any more than necessary... will it help in our fight tonight?"

Antonio studied the woman. "Yes it will aid you in your fight," he said with a small quirk to his mouth. She had no idea how much of an aid it would be. "So yes, you’re going to want to take the time to retrieve it."

Rowena nodded briskly. "Then I'd better go. Faran, will you carry me there?"

*Of course. You don't need to ask.*

Rowena turned back to John, Gem and Daniel. "I'll be no time at all. I'll ride to the Abbott, collect this package, and return at once. Why don't you all get yourself into your costumes and start heading back towards the town? I'll be on your heels..."

"I don't understand," Daniel piped up. "I was under the impression we were all going in to the monastery so we could use the secret tunnels on that map of Brother John's... That was why we all met here, wasn't it...?"

John sighed. "Yes, well, plans have changed slightly," he answered. "The map has fallen into enemy hands... I'm afraid it's useless to us now. We're going to have to come up with another way of getting in to the castle."  Then he turned to Rowena, thankful to avoid the look of disappointment he was sure he'd find in his friends' eyes. "I'll come with you," he told her, giving no consideration to how Faran might feel about carrying both of them. "I need to speak to Father Abbot too..." 

"Well you're not leaving me here," Prentis added. "You've made it plain you don't want me out of your sight, and I assure you the feeling is mutual, sister. It's taken me this long to find you; I'm not going to risk losing you again..."

Rowena completely ignored the boy's comment. How dare he be so familiar?! As though he was long lost family! "John!" she whined. "What could be so important that you need to speak to Father Abbot now?! Can't it wait til afterwards?" She tried not to think about the fact that there might not be an afterwards...

"There might not be an afterwards," John replied quietly, inadvertently giving voice to the thought Rowena was trying to deny. "And I must speak to him about that scroll. The Usurper has doubtless already sent her minions out here looking for me, and now that she has the scroll, there's a good chance she'll use it to sneak her spies into the very heart of the monastery. Father Abbot must be warned. We should find the entrance to those tunnels, and seal it up."  He glanced along the road to where the monastery walls could be seen in the distance. "Besides, there are... personal matters... that I need to sort out with him - in case I don't make it back here. It's only five or ten minutes' walk, Rowena; I won't hold you up that much..."

"Oh by the Gods!" hissed Antonio, his patience finally snapping. He turned and walked away a few paces, muttering to himself. It was only seconds later the air shimmered and three horses walked through, their reins loosely tied around their necks. He marched them over to the small group. He grabbed Prentis without any further ado and threw him on one horse, then got on himself. "Get on the horse Brother John. Lady, get on yours and..." he waved a hand, "Anyone else going to the Abbey. The longer we stand here the more wasted time goes by."

Faran whinnied loudly, echoing Antonio's haste. *Hurry up, girl. You've already wasted more time than I can believe!  Your father would be disgusted with you! You're supposed to be leading these people, not molly-coddling them when they want to have little chats with their friends!*

Rowena bristled at the reference to her father, but knew that Faran was right. "On the horse, John," she ordered. At the same time, she slipped up onto Faran's bare back, twisting her fingers lightly into his mane. So many peculiar things had happened in the last two days, that strange horses appearing out of nowhere didn't seem particularly strange at all.

"Gem, Daniel, gather everyone together, get them into costume, and start moving them down the road in small groups to the town. If they try to go through the gates all at once, there'll be questions. Send them in twos & threes. We'll all meet up in the square out the front of the Seventh Stranger in half an hour from now, and we'll all head up towards the Castle together."

Daniel promised to do just that, though he was very distracted by the glowing horses which had appeared out of thin air. He nodded to Rowena, never taking his eyes off the strange steeds. He was very glad he didn't have to get on one himself.

Relieved that he didn't have to argue the point any further, John hoisted himself up onto the nearest horse, refusing to think about where the animal had come from. He brought the beast up alongside Faran and then turned in his saddle to look back at his friends that he was leaving behind. "Good luck," he wished them.

It took no more than two or three minutes to reach the monastery walls on horseback, and upon their arrival, John took it upon himself to lead the way inside. This was - or at least used to be - his home, afterall...

Brother Robert didn't recognise the man at the gate, at first, but as soon as John spoke his greeting, the elder monk's eyes widened. "Brother John!" he exclaimed, looking the other man up and down as though horrified to see him dressed as he was. "I... none of us expected to see you back here... The Countess's guards..."

"Are more and more likely to find me every minute you leave me standing out here," John interrupted. "Please. I need to see the abbot. I have a few friends with me..."

The gate was opening almost before he'd finished speaking. "Come in, quickly," Brother Robert said, looking even more horrified at the fact that one of Brother John's 'friends' was a female. "I've not seen Father Abbot all day," he confessed as he closed the gate behind them, "but I can make some inquiries as to his whereabouts if you'll wait..."

"Thank you," Rowena interrupted. "We'll be grateful for your haste. We have no time to lose."
 
Alexa was walking up towards the gates when suddenly she spotted the group of travellers. "Rowena!"  She shouted, running towards them. "Brother John!"

Startled to hear another voice on the other side of the gate after he'd closed it, Brother Robert opened it again, and frowned at the form of the little girl standing there. "Another friend of yours...?" he asked John with a raised eyebrow.

"Alexa!" John exclaimed. "Where have you been?  Warren and the... Sorcha... have just gone back to town to look for you, they were worried sick!"

Brother Robert ushered the girl inside and closed the gate again. "If you'd all care to wait in the refectory..." he said impatiently, "I'll see if I can find Father Abbot for you..."
 
Rowena reached out to beckon Alexa to them. "No, stay with us now, child. We'll deliver you safe back to Warren ourselves."  Glancing at John, she started in the direction of the refectory. "Should we leave the horses here in the courtyard?" she asked...

"I'll stay with them. But go collect your inheritance with haste, Lady Rowena," Antonio said. He turned to his horses and gave a two small short whistles, hoping that the other tribes had kept to the same training as his. The horses stayed standing still and he looked at the glowing god horse curiously.

Faran gave a dignified snort, stamping his foreleg on the cobbles. *The horses won't go anywhere if I tell them not to,* he announced.

*Yes, but the holy brothers will think it strange if we don't leave a person to with them,* Rowena pointed out. *Chat to Antonio for a while,* she smiled, having no idea if Faran could speak to the man or not. *See if you can find out anything about this army of his.*

"Thank you, Antonio," she replied aloud. She reached out for Alexa to take her hand. "Come on, child. We'll see if the good brothers can't provide a bite and a sup for you while we wait on the Abbot, eh?"

John spoke a word of thanks to Brother Robert before turning to lead the way toward the refectory.

Prentis followed silently, but his eyes remained fixed on the little girl who'd been with them in the cellar of the Seventh Stranger. He could sense that there was far more to her than met the eye, and his curiosity ran rampant.

John pushed open the door to the refectory and stood aside to let the others precede him inside...

Rowena cast her gaze about the room as they stepped in. There were few people about at the moment, most of the brothers at prayer. But she suspected it couldn't be long now before they came in for their evening meal. At present there were only a few travellers taking their ease here, but she was wary, not sure if any of them might recognise either her or Brother John. She let her hat slip down a bit further over her eyes and moved to sit at a bench as far from the strangers as possible...

John followed suit, casting furtive glances at the other strangers in the room and remaining guarded as he directed the children to sit on either side of Rowena and then seated himself across the table from them. After a few seconds he spoke quietly to Alexa, for the sake of having something to say while they waited. "Alexa honey... Why don't you tell us where you've been, and why you ran off without telling anybody...?"

But before the girl had the chance to draw breath, Prentis interrupted. "That man over there has something that belongs to you," he told John in a low voice.

John turned to look at the stranger, without thinking. "What do you mean?" he demanded, turning back to Prentis. "And how do you know?"

"I told you I can sense things," Prentis snapped irritably. "And I don't know what it is that he has, but it's something that's connected to you somehow. That's all I know."

John cast a worried glance at Rowena. If this was true, could it just be coincidence...?

Rowena didn't know what to think, but she wasn't happy about it. "And how did this man know to find us here and now?" she whispered to Prentis. Surely this had to be a trap...

"I don't think he knows who we are..." Prentis whispered back, but he wasn't entirely sure...

John continued to look past Prentis at the stranger, as he asked the lad, "Is there any way you can..."  And then he stopped as his heart leapt into his throat. His hand shot out to grip Rowena's wrist. "Oh, sweet Jesus, the scroll!  He's got the scroll...!  Our map of the tunnels..."

Prentis's eyes widened. The precious map that John had been fretting about all this time... And they'd found it here, like this, totally unexpectedly. He started to smile. "Come with me," he said suddenly, leaping to his feet and grabbing Alexa by the hand. He all but dragged her off her seat. "Play along with me..."  And he hauled her over to where the stranger was sitting.

"Hullo, Mister!" he said in his most innocent boyish tone, clambering onto the bench across the table from the stranger. "What's your name?"

Jarlath looked up over the edge of the page, then quirked a brow at the boy. Now this was unexpected. "Jarlath," he answered, not afraid to use his real name. "And who're you, young master?"

"Edward," Prentis replied without batting an eyelid. "This is my sister. Are you waiting to see the abbot too...?"

"Aye," he replied curtly, elaborating on nothing. The corner of the assassin's mouth twitched. "Sister, eh?"  He looked the young girl up and down. "She looks nothin' like ye. Funny, that." 

"She's my half-sister," Prentis replied dismissively. "Her mother's dead."  He reached out and tugged at the top of the parchment that Jarlath was holding, peering over the edge to see what was on it. "Whatcha reading...?"

Jarlath gently pulled the parchment away from the boy's hand, not wanting to tear it with a jerk. "It would be none of your affair, lad."  He gave the boy another look, feeling a bit creeped by his appearance. Ah, that was it, he thought. Those tell-tale ears, tapered at the very tops. Elfkind. Or half-elf, if the girl really was his sister, which Jarlath had doubts about. "Where would your parents be then?  Lettin' you run rampant in here..."

"They're over there," Prentis answered, waving his hand carelessly in John and Rowena's direction. "They're waiting to see the abbot too."  He clambered up onto his knees and, in that rudely persistent way that children have when something interests them, peered over the edge of the parchment again. "Is it a map?" he asked curiously.

He couldn't figure out what it was about this child that made his skin crawl, other than the obvious Elven heritage. A surreptitious glance at the "parents" didn't make him feel much easier about it. The alleged mother and father didn't look old enough to have children as grown as these two, but it could be the dim lighting in the room as well. Ah, but perhaps there was a reason this child came directly to him and not one of the other tables. He leaned forward and lay the parchment flat on the table top. "Aye, it's a map, m'boy. A treasure map."  He grinned and winked. "Be a good lad and bring your da over. I'd like a word wit'him."

"Wha'for?" Prentis said in a distracted tone, riveting his attention on the scroll that was now fully available to him, and memorising every detail that he could while he was able...

"Because, Laddie," Jarlath said, leaning forward till his nose was inches from the boy's, "I asked you nicely. And I only ask nicely once."

Prentis locked gaze with the man, saying nothing for the long moments that they stared at each other. He tried very hard to sense something of what this Jarlath was about... but he came up with nothing useful. Certainly nothing comforting. The man had death on his hands, that much was obvious... and his driving motivation seemed to be base selfishness... But who he was and what he was doing with John's map remained a mystery. At last he broke the gaze and looked at Alexa. "Go get Dad," he ordered her, pretending not to care one way or the other. Then he returned his child-like attention to the map. "Where's the treasure?" he asked, pretending to search the parchment for the spot marked 'X'...

Alexa gave a nod and thought briefly about how she'd gained two dads over the past couple of days. She wandered over to John and Rowena and whispered, "John, that man - Jarlath - he wants to speak to you."

Rowena grabbed John's hand at once, squeezing nervously. "How does he know the map is yours?" she breathed almost silently in his ear. "John, maybe it's best we just leave... it's not safe for you here."

"The map isn't mine, it belongs to the monastery library," John reminded her softly, returning the pressure on her fingers, "but maybe he doesn't know it's connected to me at all. Maybe he just wants me to control my kids..."  He gave her a wolfish grin which belied the knots in his belly, and started to get to his feet. "Don't worry," he added. "We're safe here as long as none of Audra's guards are around. It's best we find out who this fellow is now, before he has the chance to cause trouble."  He added grimly, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't..."

Alexa looked at the pair. "Shall I bring you over, Dad?" she smiled, trying to act nonchalant.

John gave the girl a grin and chucked her gently under the chin with his fingertips. "Thanks, Pumpkin," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

"Be careful," Rowena whispered, looking up into his eyes. She needed him now more than ever, and prayed to all the gods that might be watching over them to keep him safe.

He gave her a look of deep affection and pressed the palm of his hand to her cheek. "I will," he promised quietly. With undisguised fervour he added,  "Tonight's going to be our night, Rowena - I can feel it in my bones."  And impulsively he bent down to place a kiss on her forehead. "Have faith," he smiled at her.

She merely nodded and watched him go. She did have faith. In the gods that were aiding her, in their friends, in her ability to depose Audra, but most of all she had faith that John would be with her through it all. She sighed deeply.

John turned and ambled across the room to where the man called Jarlath sat with Prentis, perusing the precious piece of parchment. He gave an amiable smile as he approached. "I'm sorry, are the children disturbing you...?" he asked.
 
"Nay sir," Jarlath replied. "Merely... Well, perhaps you and I might chat without the, er, boy present. This is a matter for adults."  He gave the man a surveying look. He didn't look much of a Warrior for Christ - or much of a warrior at all, at that. Still, he did perk up quite a bit when Jarlath first brought out the scroll. Whether or not the man realized he'd done so. "I think I have something that's yours, or rather, that you've lost. I've come to return it to you."

A million different things went through John's mind all at once. After several seconds, he looked at Prentis and said quietly, "Go on."

The boy got up without a word, his face expressionless, and with a final glance a Jarlath he walked obediently back to where Rowena waited.

John sat down and leaned his elbows on the table, regarding the stranger silently for a moment. Finally he said quietly, "What makes you think it's mine...?"

"I'm an observant man, Brother John," he said in a low voice. "It's my job to be so."  Jarlath cast his eyes toward the people the man had come in with. "For instance, I see no trace of relation between the lot of you. Don't worry," he said before the man could protest. "I'm not here to offend."  Then he rolled up the parchment and slid it across the table, keeping one hand lightly on it. "It was found in the room of a Healer who was attached to a Woodland Elf in some way. After some coercion, the Elf said it belonged to a Brother John. The seal on the page led me to this monastery."  Releasing the scroll, he sat back in his chair. "I can't stay much longer. But I'm fairly certain that the good Abbott would not be well pleased to find that such a secret document almost made its way into Lady Audra's hands."

John's mind raced, but his face and hands remained perfectly still. Found in the healer's room...?  Yes, stolen... by Audra's guards. And Legolas, the elf who had seemed so protective of Maeve... he had betrayed them, given John's name to this man, and told him Heaven knows what else. John began to feel some concern for Maeve's safety in the company of the treacherous elf. And now, for some reason, this 'Jarlath' wanted him to believe that the scroll had never found its way from Audra's guards to Audra herself. He sat quietly for a very long moment, resting his eyes on the scroll but not reaching out to take it. At last he lifted his gaze and, giving up all pretence as to his true identity, said quietly, "There is nothing secret about the document at all, my friend. The late Earl and Lady Mina were perfectly well aware of its existence here at the monastery. The Earl himself made use of the passages it maps out, to call for his confessor and to meet the abbot for counsel. I see no reason to believe that the Lady Audra isn't aware of its existence too."  His fingers itched to take the scroll, to have it safely in his grasp once more... but he disciplined himself to remain still. "I should rather be interested to know how you came by it... and why you've taken such pains to return it to me personally, rather than to the library from whence it came..." 

"How I came by it?"  The man chuckled darkly. "You no doubt know that Audra had sent guardsmen out earlier in search of some... fugitives."  He watched the monk's face for recognition. "A few more fugitives than you know of, really. The healer and her Elven companion apparently interrupted a public whipping. They escaped before the Lady could decide their fate. Anyway, it was in that search one of the guards who handles my affairs found it and brought it to me. Eventually, I decided to bring it back to you. For you might need it yet. Put it back in the bleedin' library yourself. That's not my responsibility."

John was not comforted to hear that this man was so closely associated with any of Audra's lackeys... and yet some tiny spark of hope flared in his heart. "You might need it yet"... It almost sounded as though Jarlath knew - and supported - their plans to invade the castle. Well, it wasn't too farfetched an idea, was it...?  Audra had far more enemies than friends in this world, and probably more of them than she knew of...

Jarlath stood up and put out his hand. "I must be going now. I wish you fortune."

John wasn't quite ready to let the man go yet... there were so many other things he wanted to know... but slowly he realised there was no way to ask any of them. Not without compromising himself and Rowena and everything they hoped for. He looked at the outstretched hand silently for a very long time, before finally - reluctantly - reaching out to take it. He looked Jarlath in the eyes as if trying to glean one final clue... anything at all. Then he released his hand without saying a word.

Prentis, meanwhile, resumed his seat beside Rowena and settled himself in comfortably again. "Well, I got a good look at it, even if John doesn't manage to get it back," he told his sister. "So I'm guessing it's a map of some secret entrance to the castle... is it...?"

Rowena shrugged. "Yes, it is. But we'll not be using it." She had no desire to speak to the boy, and kept her reply short and to the point.

Prentis looked at her unwaveringly, and after a moment he said, "Why? Because you're afraid Audra knows about it now...?"

"Because anybody knows about it, boy," she sighed. "It wouldn't matter who knew, would it? If it's not secret, it's not safe. We're better off just going in the front gate with everyone else."

Prentis was completely unperturbed by the hostility in her tone. He continued to look at her, and then said, "I disagree. The witch has magical wards placed across all known entrances to the castle... She's expecting you, and she'll know as soon as you cross any of those thresholds. Your friends will get in undetected... but you, personally, won't. Your best bet is to find a threshold that she doesn't know about and which she hasn't protected with one of her spells..."

Rowena fixed her gaze on him. "You don't seem to understand. I want to face Audra. I have no desire to hide from her. I'm going in there, and I'm going to destroy her. It's as simple as that. I don't need secret passages for that, now do I?"

Prentis's eyes narrowed. "No," he said quietly. "But the element of surprise would be an advantage, if you can get it."
 
She shrugged. "So why are you so anxious for me to go down through the tunnel, boy?" she asked. "Planning some sort of ambush of your own?"

Impatience surged through Prentis's veins and burst out of his mouth with a hiss. He raised himself up on the seat, placing his hands squarely on the bench top, and glared deep into her eyes. "What I'm anxious for is for you to trample that bitch hag into the ground where she belongs and to avenge the death of our father and the memory of our mother! If there was any way I could do it without you, it would already be done, but seeing as how I'm stuck with you, I am trying to make sure you succeed! Why don't you..."

He was cut off by John's hand clamping onto the back of his neck. "What's going on?" the monk demanded in a low growl, his eyes asking Rowena if she was alright...

Rowena glared furiously at the boy, and stifled the urge to growl. "Our little friend here is just trying to convince me how he's on our side is all," she replied. "He wants us to use the map to get into the Castle."

John gave the boy a warning glance to prevent him from responding, before strategically inserting himself onto the bench between them. He sat down slowly, and placed the scroll equally slowly on the table in front of Rowena. "Our little friend's opinions are pretty much irrelevant at this point," he said quietly. Then he looked her deep in the eyes and added even more quietly and deliberately, "But I think we should be careful to examine all our possibilities on their individual merits, and not discount one merely because its source makes us uncomfortable..."

Rowena wasn't happy. "So you think it's safe to go through that tunnel now? Knowing that others know of its existence? How did that man come to have the map anyway?"

John drew a deep breath and rested his eyes on the article in question. "He claimed he was given it by the guard who took it from Maeve's room. Said the guard was loyal to him, rather than to Audra. And he seemed to expect me to be grateful for his having kept it out of Audra's hands. But as for who he is and why he felt compelled to return the scroll to me personally, he gave no explanation. I haven't the faintest idea how much truth there was to anything that he said." He looked up and into Rowena's eyes again. "But it's pointless to worry about whether it's going to be safe to use the tunnels, Rowena. Name me one part of our entire plan for this evening that's going to be safe. The whole thing is an enormous, brazen risk. The key to our success is not going to be how cautious we are or how safe we manage to stay... it's going to be in our boldness and our determination, and our ability to take advantage of our enemy's every weakness. If there's a chance these tunnels will give us an advantage, we can't just dismiss the idea out of timidity and trepidation..."

He ran out of steam at last, and his little speech trailed off. A moment later, the sound of slow, ironic applause issued from Prentis's direction. "Oh, bravo," smirked the boy. "A truly inspired monologue. All those years of prayer have certainly given you the gift of poetry and oration, Brother John." Still smirking, he leaned forward on his elbows and looked at his sister. "But if you can look past all the pretty words, you'll see that he actually makes good sense, too."

Rowena listened to all of it, true, but she still had a major objection. "Our people are heading into town already. How do you propose we get word to them of what we intend?" But as soon as the words left her lips the thought entered her mind that they could ask Antonio to bear the message...

"Well, we certainly can't take Faran through the tunnels with us, if that's the way we choose to go," he answered. "Maybe he and Antonio could return to town together." He took a few seconds to get a handle on the deep-rooted concern he had about trusting strangers to help them, reminding himself of the words he'd only just spoken. They would have to take risks if they were to succeed. Then he said, "Speaking of whom... Do we know how Antonio and his people are going to fit into our plans? What exactly is it that they're planning to do...?"

Rowena shook her head. "I'm hoping we won't need to ask for their aid. But we'll speak to Antonio when we're done here. Speaking of which... where's the Abbot? We can't wait much longer, John. We need to get moving, whichever way we go."

As if she had conjured him up with her mere words, Brother Robert came bustling through the refectory door at that very moment. He was wearing an ever-so-slightly distressed frown, and clasped his hands together as he approached them. "Brother John," he said as John stood to greet him, "my tidings are unfortunate, I'm afraid. Father Abbot is not to be found within these grounds. It seems not a brother amongst us has seen him since sun-up."

John's face donned a frown to match Brother Robert's. Truth be told, it wasn't all that unusual for the Abbot to be absent from the monastery for long hours - even a day or so - at a time... and often he would not say where he would be during his absence... But never did he simply leave the monastery without telling anybody. John glanced at Rowena. "You saw him last night, didn't you? In the town?"

"Just before dawn," Rowena nodded. "He didn't say much about what his plans were. I entrusted Antonio's gift to him, because I didn't know whether I might be caught, trying to get you out of town. Nothing could have happened to him... could it?"

John chewed his lower lip. "No," he said reflexively. "He can take care of himself." But he couldn't keep the worry out of his voice. "This thing that you need to get from him... Can we get by without it, for tonight...?"

Prentis, in the background, sighed like a bored and impatient child. "I don't know what we need the stupid Abbot for anyway," he muttered to Alexa.

Rowena shrugged. "I don't even know what it is, John. Antonio gave it me and said it would help... but it's not as though we don't have weapons enough already. Would the abbot have left it somewhere we could get to it? It was just a small package, wrapped in dark cloth..."

John turned back to Brother Robert. "Brother," he said earnestly, "you know I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important..."

"...And you know I couldn't allow it if you did ask," Brother Robert interrupted. "It's not my place to allow others entry to Father Abbot's private chamber."  He cast his eyes about the room and then added in a half-whisper, "Nor would it be my place to hand over the spare key which is kept in the [insert name of place-where-spare-keys-might-be-kept-in-a-monastery]."  He straightened and spoke in a normal voice again. "God be with you in your quest, Brother John. I shall leave you to find your own way out when you're ready."  And the good brother turned on his heel and exited the refectory.

"Well," John said to Rowena with his eyebrows raised and a faint smile on his lips. "Who's up for a visit to the Abbot's chambers, then...?"

"Gods yes!" Rowena sighed, frustrated beyond belief. "Anything to get us out of this place and back to where we need to be! At this rate the Ball will be over before we're even close to the Castle!" She stood up and offered little Alexa her hand. She didn't want to leave the child here, in case they had to hurry away without returning to this place. She murmured quietly to John, "Faran says Antonio's impatient to go. Should we ask him to deliver a message to Gem & Daniel for us, do you think?"

John nodded. It seemed, somehow, that they had come to an agreement about using the secret tunnels, without actually coming to an agreement about it. "And perhaps we ought to ask him to take Alexa back to town with him, too," he said as he walked over to the refectory door and held it open for the others to pass through. "I suppose we might safely leave her at the inn until her parents come for her, or she finds her way home somehow..."

"A sound plan," Rowena agreed. "What do you say, child? Will you go back to town with Antonio? I'm sure your parents are worried about you, and it's not safe for you to take the route that John and I will travel."

"Please don't make me go home," Alexa said, before she could stop herself. She paused before adding embarrassedly, "I... I'd really like to help you in your quest."

Prentis cast a speculative eye at Alexa as he listened to the conversation. There was something decidedly unusual about the girl,  though he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. In some ways she was exceptionally mature and independent for her age... yet in others she was almost frighteningly naive. And there was a hidden depth... a hidden power, almost... within her. Whatever else she might be, Alexa was no ordinary child, he was certain of that. But he said nothing, and followed the others out of the refectory...

Alexa felt eyes on her, and she figured they were coming from Prentis' direction, but she dared not look at him again just now. She kept facing forward and walked along with Rowena.

John's brow wrinkled a little and he drew a deep breath. This wasn't the first time he'd heard a young child plead not to be sent home. More than once he'd been given charge of young lads - some as young as 3 or 4 years old - who'd turned up at the monastery gate bruised and bleeding... needing protection from the very parents or guardians who ought to have been their protectors...

He shuddered. "If there's a reason you can't go home, Alexa, we won't make you," he said gently. "We'll find another place where you'll be safe. But you can't come with us, sweetheart... it's too dangerous."

"Let her come," Prentis spoke up suddenly. "I think she'll be more useful than you realise."

John turned a disbelieving glare on the boy, but said nothing as the group walked out into the courtyard where Antonio and Faran awaited them.

Antonio watched Rowena. "Did you receive the bundle I gave you?"

Rowena shook her head. "The Abbot's... gone missing. We're nipping up to his study to look for it before we make our way back to town." She looked up at John, taking a deep breath. She couldn't quite believe they were risking the tunnels with Prentis. Surely Rhodan could be laying in wait for them anywhere along the way, or perhaps this Jarlath had in fact come from Audra herself. The whole situation screamed "trap" to her, but John seemed determined, and she knew to trust his judgment. "I'd hoped you and Faran could take Alexa back to town, and ask our people to meet us in the Castle," she said to Antonio. "What say you?"

"Alexa's coming with us," Prentis interrupted, before Antonio could answer.

Alexa had been about to speak up when Prentis voiced her hopes more strongly than she would have done herself. She said nothing, not wishing to press the issue, but really hoping they let her come and try to help.

Antonio studied the young woman. "Very well - my people are already placed at the castle. We will be moving with or without you," he said. He turned and looked at the young girl thoughtfully. "The girl should stay with you," he said simply to Rowena. "I will find your people and take them to the castle."

"Fine," Rowena snapped. "The child's coming with us." If this man thought he could just walk in and take her castle, after all she'd done to fight for it, he had another thing coming.

*He doesn't want to take Ashby for himself,* Faran assured her. *You'd do well to trust him.* 

*What do you know about it?* she grumbled at the horse.

*I know what you asked me to find out, girl,* Faran snorted. *Now hurry up and get going.*

She threw a glance at John, and raked her eyes over Prentis as well, then finally turned back to Antonio. "You heard our discussion with Gem and Daniel. They'll be meeting on the green outside the Seventh Stranger. Kindly tell them that we're going to take the other route into the Castle and will find them inside." She pulled a carved wooden button out of her pocket. "You'll need to give this to one of them, so that they know you do indeed come from me and that your word can be trusted." 

Antonio took the button and gave a nod of acknowledgment and farewell, before turning and striding toward the monastery gate.

John found himself fidgeting with the hilt of the sword strapped to his side. He was starting to feel nervous. The reality of what they were about to do... and the amount of responsibility for its success or failure that rested on his shoulders... was only now, suddenly, coming home to him. He took a deep breath. "Come on then," he said, hoping he sounded relaxed and confident. "Let's go do what we have to do and get out of here."

They retrieved the keys from their hiding place, and made their way straight to the abbot's chambers.

Rowena wriggled her toes, waiting impatiently for John to unlock the door.

In spite of what Brother Robert had told them, John knocked softly on the Abbot's door and waited for a few seconds before fitting the key... just in case the Abbot had mysteriously reappeared in the past few minutes. But there was no answer, and it was with a quickened heart-rate that he turned the key in the lock and swung the door open. He stepped into the room ahead of the others and looked around, half afraid of finding Abbot Roger lying in a pool of blood on the floor, or naked and strapped to his bed the way John had been strapped to the stone slab in Audra's dungeon. But there was no sign of the Abbot and no sign of any disturbance... nothing that could possibly explain the churchman's disappearance.

John let the others into the room. "Okay," he said in a half-whisper. "Rowena, can you describe for us exactly what we're looking for...?  Its size, shape, colour, and so forth...?  Then we'll spread out and start looking..."

Rowena held her hands out to show the size of the package. "It was very small. Wrapped in a piece of undyed sackcloth or something like that and tied with string. It was heavy, like there was metal or glass inside it."  She started searching the room, and prayed he'd left it somewhere visible...

John's eyebrows twitched with curiosity, wondering what could have been contained in the package and what its value to their quest was. With a nod of acknowledgment, he turned and moved to another area of the room, feeling intensely uncomfortable about invading the Abbot's privacy this way, and began searching.

Prentis watched them both with a wry smile. He knew where the object in question was. He'd known from the moment they opened the door. But Rowena and John still didn't understand... or refused to accept... the power of his extra-sensory abilities. Not half an hour ago, he'd told John unequivocally that the stranger sitting in the refectory had something that belonged to the monk... It stood to reason that he would also be able to sense the presence here of something that belonged to Rowena... But no, his sister and her protector were too stubbornly set in their own ignorant ways to consider such a thing.

After a moment of pondering whether he should tell them what he sensed or let them find it themselves, Prentis turned a speculative eye on Alexa again. He studied her silently for a few seconds before he spoke. "I bet you could find it without looking, too..." he told her quietly, with an almost taunting smile on his lips.

Alexa had been about to speak when Prentis broke the silence between them. "How do you...?" she began, but then caught herself. That's right...he was between life and death. The soul stealers....  A shiver ran through her.

Rowena looked around for a couple of minutes in growing frustration before she finally thought to try something clever. After all, hadn't Faran said Equus was there to guide and help if only she'd listen?  She could almost hear his derisive snort in her head, chastising her for being slow in the uptake. She closed her eyes, let out a slow breath, cleared her thoughts, and spoke to her gods. "Where is it?" she asked simply. Her eyes opened, and she found her gaze drawn to a window seat. She stepped across to it, lifted the seat, and there it was in the hollow beneath, atop a pile of folded garments. "I've got it," she grinned to John, holding it aloft.

John felt a mixture of joy that it had been so easy and unease that Rowena had so obviously depended on magic and pagan gods to find it. But, he reasoned, it was magic and pagan gods that were going to win them back the Earldom of Ashby... so he really ought to be pleased that his friend had such a command of those things. He grinned back at her. "Well done," he said, holding her gaze, his eyes bright with pride. "Now, what do we do with it...?"

Prentis, too, was caught between joy and disappointment. This was the sort of thing he needed his sister to do, if they were ever to defeat Audra. But he wished he'd had the chance to see if Alexa could have done anything similar. The little girl had some untapped powers buried deep within her, and he desperately wanted to find out what they were so he & Rowena could make use of them. He sighed and looked away from her. "Let's get down to the catacombs and find those tunnels," he put in. "We can open the package and see what's inside while John looks for the tunnels' entrance." 

Again John found himself agreeing with the boy. "Yes, let's," he said, at once relieved and disappointed to be getting out of the abbot's chambers so quickly. He led the little group back past the place where they'd got the abbot's spare key from and returned it, before heading on down to the catacombs beneath the monastery.

The catacombs were dark and musty, but clean... a sacred space, not much used by the monks, but well cared for. All the abbots who had ever presided at St Julian's were buried here in great stone vaults, and even the bones of St Julian herself were - purportedly - locked away in one of the most secret vaults. Privately, John doubted whether this was in fact the case - he'd seen far too many improbable holy relics in his time to believe that anything was what it was claimed to be - but it gave the monks something to rally around. Gave them a sense of solid foundation for their community.

While they walked, Rowena busied herself with undoing the string that tied the bundle, looking up often to make sure she didn't walk into John, and that the children were still with them.

He lit the oil lamp that was kept filled at the entrance to the catacombs and handed it to Rowena before unrolling the scroll. He studied it by the light of the lamp for a moment, before saying, "This way," and leading the little group into the dark musty depths...
 
Rowena took the lamp, pleased to have charge of the light. Now she could see what she was doing. She let the last of the cloth fall away from the bundle, and found a pendant inside. It hung on a tarnished silver chain, and a silver pentacle hung from the end, the metal intricately etched. Even with the lamp it was too dark for her to see the patterns clearly. The centre of the pentacle held a large, red stone, which glowed warm in the lamplight.
 
Seeing John walk on, she draped the chain round her neck quickly, and hurried up to his side with the light...

Eventually the monk slowed his pace and began looking intently at the walls. He glanced at the map again, then back at the walls, then back at the map. "It's around here somewhere," he murmured. "Unfortunately the map shows where the tunnel entrance is but doesn't tell us how to trigger the door..."  He checked the map one more time and began feeling around the walls, hoping to find some secret button or lever or something.

Prentis watched for a few seconds, before sighing impatiently and walking over to the wall behind John. He pushed on it unceremoniously, and it slid inward. John spun round in surprise. "How did you...?"

"You're not very good at reading maps, are you?" Prentis returned dryly.

John ignored the barb and stepped hesitantly toward the opening in the wall. A short way beyond, a narrow staircase fell away into darkness. He glanced at Rowena, not even noticing the necklace she was wearing...

She looked up into John's eyes, a little nervous about going down into the darkness. Anything could be lurking down there in wait for them, especially with the monster-child involved. She'd just have to pray for Equus help, and that of the Elven gods, if trouble came on them. She knew enough magic to keep them safe. "Let's go then," she whispered, giving John's fingers a squeeze...

Instinctively, his fingers curled around hers and clutched them tightly as he stepped into the darkness. "Stay close," he murmured to Alexa. The light of the lamp Rowena still held cast a relatively small circle of light about them, and he didn't want anybody tripping over something... or walking into an ambush...

The staircase was steep and narrow, but didn't go down more than a couple of dozen steps. The air was cold and stale ahead of them as they left the staircase behind and walked onward, their feet stirring up a thin layer of dust from the floor. Eventually, after some five or ten minutes of walking, they passed a point where the ceiling suddenly became very low, and John had to stoop to get past. He looked over his shoulder when he was able to stand up straight again. "That must be the city wall, above us," he whispered, and his whisper echoed loudly up and down the stone corridor.

They carried on.

It was another five or ten minutes before they suddenly came to a door in the right-hand wall. Stupidly, John looked at it in surprise, as though he had expected the tunnel to keep going on forever without any openings. The tunnel did continue past the door, and for now they could not see what lay beyond.

After a moment, the monk extricated his hand from Rowena's and unrolled the map, holding it in front of both of them so that she could shine the light on it. "There are three exits to these tunnels," he whispered, a little more quietly than last time. He pointed to a spot on the map. "From the looks of it, this one comes out in the chapel in the dungeons. It's a pity Warren and Sorcha didn't stay with us. This would have taken them to almost precisely where they needed to be."  Then he pointed to another spot on the map. "This one, I think, probably leads into the main chapel, just off the Great Hall."  Then he pointed to the third exit on the map. "This one I have no idea about. Can you tell where it might be, by comparing it to the other points?  You know the layout of the castle better than I do..."

It was confusing looking at the castle laid out like that, especially since they weren't looking at a single level. The dungeon chapel was on the first level below ground, while the main chapel was on ground level, in a newer building attached to the side of the main Keep.
 
Her face wrinkled up in frustration as she tried to picture where the other exit led. Without thinking, she reached out with her finger to trace the line on the map. As soon as she touched the parchment, her finger tingled warmly, and she had a mental picture appear of another tunnel, like this one, only narrower and sloping steeply upwards. Her frown deepened. She let her finger move further along the paper, and she gasped when she saw a strange room in her mind. "It's a secret room," she murmured. "There's no doors you can see." Books lined every wall, and the floor was covered in an intricate mosaic. It was dusty and dark, and in her mind, her hand reached out to push at one of the shelves, making another door swing open.
 
"There's another tunnel," she said, not realising she was speaking aloud. Her finger was still moving along the map, as though being drawn along now, and she watched in her mind as the journey progressed. When finally she came to the end of it, a plain door swung open, and she was finally in a place she recognised. "The antechamber behind the dais in the Great Hall."   The monk became increasingly more uncomfortable the longer Rowena stared at the map. At first he'd thought she was just making educated guesses about what she was looking at, but the dream-like quality of her voice began to make him suspect there was more to it than that...
 
Finally she looked up at John. "It leads to a secret room I've never seen before, and from there to the Great Hall. That could be a good way in. If the party's still going, we can mingle with the crowd immediately and not be noticed..."

Instinctively and abruptly, he pulled the map away from her, as if he believed the piece of parchment had her under a spell. It was not until he'd done that, that he suddenly noticed the pendant hanging around her neck, its central gem glowing with a strange inner light. He stared at it. "What the hell is that...?" he murmured warily.

She followed his eyes down to her breasts, and realised at last that the gem was glowing. "Oh!" she murmured. "It's what was in the bundle we retrieved. I didn't know what else to do with it." She reached up and fondled the jewel, and was rewarded with another vision, a flash of something that felt like memory, a laughing face, and a child running down the portrait gallery of the Castle. She gasped and let go of it, looking up at John. "I don't know what it is, but it's... powerful. I need to talk to Antonio."

John didn't stop frowning. "Maybe you should take it off until you work out what it does..." he murmured.

Prentis tch'ed impatiently. "You're going to have to get over your fear of magic, John," he said, "unless you plan to go back to your cloistered life in the monastery when this is all over."  Without elaborating further on that comment, he turned to Rowena and said, "Just hide it inside your bodice so it doesn't attract any attention once we get inside. And then let's get on with it!"

"It's helping," Rowena sighed to John, disgusted that she had to agree with the child. "Come on. We take the third exit, and we can come out right in the Hall." She took his hand and pulled him along, not wanting to waste any more time, nor give him a chance to object...

John drew another deep breath and allowed himself to be led down the tunnel, only casting a quick glance at Alexa to make sure she was still okay. His free hand still gripped the map, but he pressed his wrist reassuringly against the hilt of his sword as they walked. At least, between the four of them, they had something non-magical with which to protect themselves...

They found the doorway, and Rowena felt a stomach-churning sense of deja vu as the passageway turned out to look precisely the way it had in her vision. She took a deep breath and led the way in with the lantern, leaving John to bring up the rear.
 
The slope was steep, with steps appearing unexpectedly at intervals along the way, and it wound on for quite a way before it stopped at what appeared to be a dead end. The stone walls were smooth, and Rowena chewed her lip, not remembering how to get in here. Hoping John wouldn't see, she wrapped her fingers around the jewel, and reached out with her mind. The picture appeared at once, showing her to slide her knife in between two particular stones to trigger the door. She gasped in surprise at the vividness of the image, and coughed awkwardly to cover it.
 
Fingers trembling just a little, she did as she'd been told, and with a lot of cracking and creaking, the stone wall swung back, revealing the chamber behind it...

For a brief moment, John wanted to be sick. This was it. Finally, after all these years, they were getting inside the castle and launching an all-or-nothing attack on the Usurper. It was succeed or fail now... there would be no in-between. He swallowed with difficulty, and then pushed his body forward. "Let me go first," he insisted in a whisper, laying the scroll on the floor behind him and loosening his sword in its scabbard.

"No, let me go first," Prentis hissed. "If there's anyone about, I can say I'm a servant of Nikolai's and they'll let me go. I should be the one to check if it's safe for the rest of you..."

Rowena would have been far happier to be the one that went first herself, but to argue now would be to waste even more time. "In you go, John," she whispered. "I'm sure there's nobody in this room in any case. Nobody's been in there for years." The vision had shown thick dust on every surface. Quite undisturbed.

Prentis growled inaudibly, frustrated by his sister's mistrust and her general unwillingness to acknowledge his existence. But he was sensible enough to know that arguing would be counterproductive, so he stayed where he was and gritted his teeth.
 
Just one more passage to negotiate, and then she'd be able to face Audra. Her heart beat frantically in her chest, but now that it came to it, she was more eager than afraid. The jewel glowed warm at her breast, and she slid it inside her bodice, not wanting to alarm John...

John slipped past her and peered out through the doorway. Then, on impulse he turned around again and looked deep into Rowena's eyes, pressing the heel of his hand against her face. "Tonight," he whispered, his fingertips caressing her hairline, "you sleep in your father's bed."  He smiled, excitement and promise burning bright in his eyes. And he touched a brotherly kiss to her lips.

It was all Rowena could do to keep from replying, *With you, John?*  His caresses made her heart race, and his kiss almost undid her. The jewel throbbed against her breast, and she felt the power of it spread right through her body, settling around her like a warm blanket. Returning his intense gaze, all she could manage was a breathless, "Tonight."

Then he turned again, loosened his sword a little more, and stepped gingerly out of the secret tunnel into the dusty little room...

Trembling in every limb, Rowena turned to usher the children in with her, following John...

Once they were all in the room, Prentis looked up at his sister and whispered, "We should put out the lamp, if you're able to find your way in the dark."

John nodded his agreement. The smallest amount of light escaping through a crack in the walls or the doorway could give away their approach to anyone on the other side.

"I don't need a light," she assured them, placing the lamp on a dusty table and turning it right down. The room was pitch black, but somehow it didn't surprise her that she could see perfectly well. Well perhaps see was the wrong word. She could sense where everything was as though she were seeing it through a veil .The pendant began to throb steadily against her chest. Oddly enough, she wasn't wary of it in the slightest, feeling very safe and protected with it in her gown.
 
She gave the door a gentle push and it swung open smoothly, as though recently oiled. The air smelled stale though, as though it hadn't been opened in centuries. She took Alexa's hand, and instructed them all to feel for one another and make a line. "Don't let go of one another. I don't want anyone getting left behind in here, alright?"

John obediently took Alexa's other hand and reached out for Prentis's. Prentis shrugged away from him irritably. "I can sense where you all are," he snapped. "I don't need you to hold my hand like a child."

John's eyes narrowed and wordlessly he snatched at the boy's arm, securing it in a vice-like grip. Prentis struggled for only a second or two before surrendering to the man's superior strength. They both turned their attention to following Rowena and moving silently...

Rowena walked swiftly, assuring them the corridor was quite flat and free of obstruction, and they needn't fear tripping on anything. She felt Faran touch her mind, and caught a glimpse of all he'd done since they'd parted ways. "Our people are in place and waiting for us," she whispered back to John. "Antonio's are arriving."

They hurried along for a few minutes until they reached the door at the end. John felt reassured by the knowledge that they had so much support waiting for them inside the castle. He let go of Prentis and touched his sword hilt, wondering for a moment how he was going to hide it. Finally he realised there was no way he could hide it. He would just have to hope he wouldn't be challenged on having a weapon inside the castle.

The jewel throbbed in time with Rowena's excited heartbeat and she felt nothing but relief that they were finally here. "Alexa, when we come out of the tunnel, there will be a curtain between us and the Hall. I want you to stay hidden behind it, alright?"

John drew a steadying breath. "Okay... Let's do it..." he whispered...

Rowena turned the knob that opened the door, and stepped out behind the heavy velvet curtains that backed the dais. "Stay here, Alexa," she whispered again, and then she peeked out through the curtains.

Alexa simply nodded, as she watched the progress of the others.

The place was still full, though there seemed to be a general exodus beginning, with people streaming out the doors. Rowena caught sight of Audra almost at once, standing with Rhodan, and her heart began to pound, making the talisman throb ever harder. "She's there," Rowena smiled, and she stepped out onto the dais...

With great resolution, John drew his sword and stepped out onto the dais beside his friend, standing half a pace behind her, but holding the sword protectively in front of her. With courage and determination written in every inch of his stance, he surveyed the room and waited for the fight to begin...

Antonio felt a slight tightening as he saw Rowena walk in. *Let her do what she needs to do; assist as promised,* he thought. He lifted his hand, making another signal for those of the Tribe to be ready. There were several dozen of his tribe's warriors lining the walls, waiting and watching. Their orders were specific and they didn't move.

Slowly three small golden spheres started to glow at Antonio's forehead, making a slow rotating circle as if drawing a crown. The three Mages closed the current portal doorways and concentrated their power on Antonio.

John's eyes found Audra on the far side of the room, and his blood ran cold. Had he had leisure to think about it, he would have been frightened by the hatred that filled every pore of his body and soul at the sight of his tormentor. And to add insult to injury, he recognised the gown that the Usurper was daring to wear as if it were her own...

Rowena took great comfort from having John at her side, and she took a survey of the room before she made a move. A quick glance around showed her Antonio's people lining the walls, and she caught sight of both Gem and Daniel moving through the crowd. Whatever she did, she wouldn't be doing it alone.

She turned her gaze back to Audra in time to see Rhodan dash away, but for now she couldn't worry about him. Audra herself seemed frozen to the spot, and it was only now that Rowena recognised the gown the woman was wearing. Her lips narrowed, and she made her way slowly and purposefully down the steps from the dais...

John kept pace with Rowena, step for step, always slightly behind her and always with his sword protectively in front of her.

Only when the other two had left the dais did Prentis step out, unobtrusively, from behind the curtain. He kept to the shadows as he scanned the room for Nikolai, and when he caught the warlock's gaze, he gave an imperceptible nod. He could almost see Nikolai's shoulders relax a little at the sight of him. He only hoped that the warlock's relief wasn't premature or misguided...

Stewart left off supervising the food and drink, and went in search of the Countess. A moment after he caught sight of her, he stopped still. His gaze had followed hers, and he saw the old Earl's daughter coming towards her stepmother, a sword in hand.
 
For a long, stunned moment he stood frozen to the spot, but finally he found his tongue again. "Guards!" he bellowed. "To your Countess!"

The steward's shout brought men running from all corners of the Castle. The thring of swords being unsheathed reverberated around the Great Hall as footsteps echoed through the corridors.

Sergeant Torvald was foremost among the guardsmen, leading a cadre in from the outer reaches of this floor. He directed his men to form a protective circle around the Countess and Lord Rhodan, though as far as he could see, there was little threat, just the girl and the one fellow with a sword. In a moment, though, he picked out several others hanging back along the walls as if waiting for an order....

Making a decision based on what appeared to be the most immediate threat to his Countess, Sergeant Torvald stepped away from his men and levelled his sword at John. "Lay down your weapon," he commanded in a loud voice.

John's hesitation was only momentary. In his younger days, he'd engaged in swordplay lessons with the captain of the Earl's guard, and he'd shown some promise... but he'd not picked up a weapon of any kind - other than Rowena's dagger - since he'd been shipped off to the monastery. His chances of beating the Sergeant in a swordfight were slim at best. Nevertheless, he had no mind for anything but protecting Rowena and giving her the best possible chance of success against Audra - to surrender now would be unthinkable.

In an instant, he lunged at his challenger, sword point held low to slip beneath the Sergeant's guard.

Torvald deflected the blow, but only just. Amateur swordsmen usually aimed for the torso in their first blow, as though slicing through a man's guts were the only way to disable him... and he'd assumed this man would do just that. Obviously, though, this fellow had received some quality training. He danced back onto his other foot to regain his balance and swiftly aimed a sweeping slice at his opponent's sword arm.

John dodged the blade with only millimetres to spare, and instead of bringing his sword up to parry the blow, he let it pass, and then brought his own sword down to follow the Sergeant's. The impact of his weapon combined with the impetus of Torvald's own movement was more than the Sergeant's strength could deal with, and his sword clanged loudly as it scattered across the floor. John almost let out a wild ecstatic whoop of joy - he couldn't believe how easy victory had been!  He was unable to prevent a broad grin from claiming his features...

Sergeant Torvald, however, took swift advantage of his opponent's moment of distracted pleasure. He threw himself at the man, one hand aimed at his neck, the other aimed at his sword arm, ready to wrestle the arrogant puppy to the floor and teach him a lesson with his fists. He was surprised when he realised that the object preventing him from doing so was a sword hilt pressed against his ribs.

He gasped with pain and shock as the man pushed him backward and withdrew the blade from his lungs. Then the world went black.

John stopped breathing for several long seconds, the grin falling away from his face as the man fell to the floor in a pool of blood. He'd never even come close to killing anyone before, and he had no idea how to deal with it. He stared at the body, unsure as to whether he wanted to throw up, cry, faint, or all three in succession. And yet still, the only thing he could think about was protecting Rowena. He'd deal with his conscience later. Turning his eyes away from the corpse and his bloodied sword-blade, he lifted his chin, gripped his weapon with both hands to try and hold it steady, and waited for the next attack...
 
Antonio had watched the preceding, waiting. The guards now circled Audra and he expected more to come in. He flicked his hand and quietly and swiftly several tribal warriors moved forward, creating a half circle behind and to the side around Rowena and John. Antonio moved forward, making another gesture with his hand, preparing the other warriors to render any other guards that entered the room useless. He stepped easily through his people to stand behind Rowena and John. "Now," he said quietly. The Warriors moved forward and within seconds had disarmed the guards, though leaving them in place. They were silent and swift and the swords that had been drawn made a clattering noise as they hit the floor. Most of the guards would sport sprained or bruised wrists if they were smart and stayed alive.

His warriors, still silent, moved back to their position. Antonio was pleased with his tribal warriors. All of this had taken only mere seconds. Now the only two holding swords were Rowena and John.
 
Rowena could sense the strange fight going on around her, though she kept her eyes firmly on Audra.
 
The sorceress herself was sizing up her opponent, not sure whether to attack or wait to defend herself. After last night's attack, she was very uncertain of Rowena's powers. Even with her attention firmly on Rowena, she could see what was going on around her. "Nikolai!" she cried. "The guards!"

Nikolai barely hesitated. Swords were no match for whatever power Rowena and her tribal ally wielded... he knew it, and he knew that there was no reason not to help Audra out with this. It would look good for him, and it would not significantly interfere with his plans. Surreptitiously, he leaned closer to Vanya and whispered so that no one else could hear, "Go to my chamber and get some money - as much as you can conceal on your person so that no one knows you have it. Then return to me."  He did not see fit to explain. Then, with a faint smirk and a quick hand gesture, he spoke two words of magic, and instantly the circle of guards around Audra was armed again. Every man among them was startled, to say the least, to find his sword suddenly back in his hand. Several dropped their weapons again in abject terror at this act of devilry and fled... Others remained, though all looked severely shaken.

Suddenly a voice rose loud and hoarse from somewhere amongst the crowd. "People of Ashby, your true Countess has returned to you!" the voice cried. "Rise up against the Usurper and reclaim your freedom!!"
 
With that, the decision was made, the desire to kill her stepdaughter too great. "Lampo!" Audra snarled, and thrust her arms towards Rowena. Lightning of the sort she'd used to torture Brother John the night before burst from her fingers towards the girl.
 
Rowena barely flinched, simply raising her sword to deflect the bolts harmlessly into the wall. Her body felt energised, charged, and she smiled, pulling the jewel from her gown. She wrapped her hand around it, feeling the pulse ever stronger. She could feel Faran's presence in her mind, watching proceedings, and the great, dark shadow of Equus behind his thoughts. She could feel the strengthening presence of her gods gathered about her, and the long line of her ancestors stretching back into ages past. "If you can't do better than that, you might as well just run away now," she found herself saying. Her voice sounded strange and echoey to her own ears, as though it were magnified ten times...

John drew a deep breath and continued to stare, unblinking, at the hated Usurper. Oddly enough, the palpable air of magic and divine presence didn't bother him, for once. He became vaguely aware that many people - doubtlessly the small army of friends that had come from the Hidden Village, or the tribal people, or both - had moved in to confront the guards once more. The warlock Rhodan was using his foul arts to help the soldiers... the tribal mage Antonio was using his mystical powers to support those opposing the guards... and still Audra and Rowena faced each other alone...

Audra laughed, though inwardly the first real hint of anxiety began to twist her gut. "Child, I have forces at my disposal you cannot even begin to imagine," she boasted. She murmured softly and sent an immobilisation spell at Rowena. She ran towards her instantly, a sword materialising in her hand, even as Rowena struggled against the invisible bonds which held her.
 
John tensed, gripped his sword even more tightly, and prepared to intervene. Somehow, deep down, he knew Rowena would get herself out of the predicament... but he was ready to slice Audra's head off her shoulders should he prove to be wrong. And that was one killing that would not trouble his conscience...
 
"Let go!" Rowena roared, and a great blast of wind swirled up through the floor and round her. The spell snapped, and she lifted her sword to meet Audra's blow at the very last instant. Their eyes met, close up, and the jewel pulsed hot, urging Rowena silently to draw on its power.
 
"It's time for you to pay for the death of my father," Rowena declared, her voice still ringing out. Palm facing towards Audra, she stretched her arm towards her, and found words coming to her in the Elvish she hadn't spoken since she was a small child. "Thanga yassen templa," she said calmly.
 
Audra cried out, her body flying back a dozen feet, and she landed flat on her back, gasping...

At that moment, Sahara finally snapped. She would not - could not - stand by and watch her beloved mistress be humiliated like that. With a swiftness that only Elfkind possessed, she flung herself at Rowena, and within less than a second, she had her fingers tangled in the other girl's hair and a short, gleaming knife at her neck.

"So much as breathe, and I'll slit her throat," she growled at John, who had barely had the chance to do more than twitch. She yanked on Rowena's hair, pulling her head back and exposing her throat further. "Now, you whelp of a thieving slut," she growled into Rowena's ear, "it's time for you to pay for the loss of my father..."

A single wave of fear throbbed through Rowena's being, but for only a moment, and then she breathed calm again. "I don't know who you are, girl," she said stiffly, "but you won't be able to do much damage with that toy."  She smiled and looked down at the knife at her throat, which had been transformed into a harmless child's wooden play-knife. "Kela! Begone!" she growled, flinging the girl away, to slide half-way across the polished floor.
 
Sahara didn't even have time to be surprised at what had happened to her weapon. She squealed in fear and frustration as her body suddenly flew through the air and landed hard on the cold floor...

The distraction was enough to give Audra time to regroup, and already she was on her feet and aiming another spell at her step-daughter. "Burn!" she screeched, power crackling from her outstretched hands in Rowena's direction once more.

"Entula en' templa!" Rowena cried, raising her hands to meet the onslaught. A barrier sprang out, like a mirror before her, protecting John and the people around her from the fire, and it bounced right back at Audra, who fell to the floor, screaming...

Sahara was scrambling to her feet even before she'd stopped sliding across the floor. Her shoes tangled in her gown as she did so and she heard the sound of the material tearing, but she couldn't care about it at that point. She scrambled towards her mistress, but was only half way there when the reflected fire knocked Audra off her feet. Sahara screamed again, and literally threw herself at her beloved mistress. "My Lady!"  she howled, falling to her knees beside her. "Lady Audra, please...!!"  She slapped at Audra's clothes and body as though to put out the flames which had already disappeared. "Please!" she sobbed. "Be okay... please be okay..."

Alexa watched as Audra lay on the floor screaming. She wanted to help and now seemed an appropriate time. It might be a little bold, but even if it merely served as a distraction, it would be better than just standing there. Drawing her energy, she concentrated on a big sculptured pot of some sort and lifted it up. Bringing it over Audra, she let it crash down.

Sahara felt, rather than saw, the missile heading for Audra. She used her own body to deflect it, gasping in pain as the heavy pot crunched into her shoulder. It missed Audra's head, but crushed the sorceress's wrist between itself and the floor as it landed, shattering into a hundred shards around her...

Audra screamed once more, agony flowing all the way up her arm to her chest. "Nikolai!" she wailed, then tried to catch her breath, very nearly sobbing with the pain. Not in years had she felt such agony. "Sahara..." she gasped, realising only now who it was who was with her. She tried to sit herself up, pain throbbing through her arm, bloody hand hanging useless at her side. Through dizzy eyes she tried to see where Rowena now stood, whimpering when she saw the girl walking slowly towards her.

Hearing Audra scream his name, Nikolai spun round and was horrified to find Audra on the floor, burned, bloodied and disoriented, with only Sahara trying to support her as she struggled to sit up. He fled to her side...

Rowena watched dispassionately, wondering who had flung the urn, and sending silent thanks. She stepped closer to her stepmother, ready now to end the life of the woman who had ended her father's. The jewel hanging about her throat pulsated in time with her heartbeat as she twirled her sword expertly...

Silently, the warlock stepped in front of Audra's prostrate form and held up his hand, palm outward, to ward off Rowena's attack. His heart hammered in his chest at the sudden realisation that everything could easily go horribly wrong in the next few seconds. He looked deep into Rowena's face and stared at her, unblinking and unflinching. Summoning up all his magical power, he shielded himself well, and then spoke, without moving his lips, in a voice which none but Rowena could hear.

"Let her live," he commanded soundlessly, still without moving or blinking. "I will not fight you, if you let us leave here unharmed. Kill her, and I will bring this castle to the ground with all your precious townsfolk beneath it. Do not make the mistake of believing you can stop me..."

Utterly unaware that anything was passing between Rowena and the warlock, John waited tensely for his friend to fling Rhodan aside the same way she had flung Audra and the dark-eyed Elven girl. There was a bard somewhere nearby singing a powerful rendition of a warriors' hymn, and though he'd never heard the song before, it stirred powerful emotions within him. His gaze remained fixed on Audra, hatred and a thirst for justice burning hot in his veins. *Yes,* he thought, as he waited for Rowena to act. *Kill her...*

Cat, meanwhile, had spun on her heel, looking for the source of the flying pottery. She couldn't see anyone, though, which made her, if possible, even more nervous. *Come on,* she told herself sharply. *Don't be stupid... it's all just tricks...*  She steadied her knife-hand, trying not to think of how the hair of her nape had risen when the woman, Rowena, if all the voices were to be believed, had done whatever she'd done to deflect that blast of fire. Or when the other one had conjured up the blast of fire, come to that.

Someone came charging out of the crowd. Cat registered leather armour and a broadsword and turned. A guard was running towards her--no, towards Brother John, who seemed oblivious to the attack, watching whatever was happening in front of him. Cat didn't think; she stepped up to John's unprotected flank and let fly with her dagger. Blood sprayed out of the guard's throat; he gurgled alarmingly as he fell.

Momentarily distracted by the sudden movement behind him, John turned to look over his shoulder, his gaze falling immediately on the dying body of the guard who had obviously been coming at him. His next glance fell on the figure of a woman only a few paces away from him, who showed all the signs of having been the one who cast the killing blow. He flashed her a quick smile. "Thanks!" he said, and then turned back hungrily to watch Audra's upcoming execution. He didn't even hear the tiny voice in the back of his mind which tried to tell him there was something familiar about that woman's eyes...

Cat raised an eyebrow underneath her mask. "Aye, you're welcome and all," she said dryly. She stepped over to retrieve her knife. Pulling it out of the dead guard's throat, she shrugged philosophically to herself. She was masked, and a good few years older than when she'd last seen Brother John. She hadn't really expected him to gasp with recognition and clasp her to his bosom. *Would've been nice, though,* a little voice at the back of her mind said as she wiped her dagger clean on the guard's tunic.

The guard's hand shot out and grasped her by the wrist. Cat almost yelped, twisting to get free. She caught a look of murderous fury in the guard's eyes just before they closed again. "Gods and demons!" she spat under her breath, panting. She kicked the guard once, hard.  Yep, he was definitely dead now. And he had no use for that sword. Cat smiled a little to herself and loosed it from his limp grasp. It was a bit heavier than she was used to, but she could manage it all right. She took a couple of practice swings, to get the feel of the thing, then she moved back towards Brother John.

Rowena felt no fear of Rhodan, quite certain that she had more than enough power to crush both him and Audra. It thrummed through her body, making every sense acute, her awareness of every action, movement and gesture heightened. But Prentis' words came back to her as she faced the warlock. That Rhodan had no interest in Ashby, and had sent the boy to help her... Looking the man in the eyes for the first time in ten years, she felt this was likely true.
 
She wasn't sure how long she held his gaze, while she made her choice. She looked down at the pathetic woman at her feet and still felt hatred and disgust, but she also saw her father's face, and her mother's, in her mind's eye. They would not seek revenge, of that she was certain. And what would be a worse punishment for a creature like Audra? A quick death? Or a lifetime of knowing she'd failed, and seeing Rowena in the seat of power she'd tried to steal for herself?
 
"She will live," she murmured, looking back up at Rhodan. "But I will not have her plotting to return here." Her fingers opened wide in Audra's direction. "Forget," she said simply, casting a spell to interfere with Audra's memory. Audra gasped and fell limp in Sahara's arms.
 
John looked at Rowena in surprise. *She will live...??*  For Heaven's sake why??  But even as the thought occurred to him, he thought he understood why. He noted the word "forget" as Rowena spoke it, and as he realised what the spell had done, he returned his gaze to Audra, looking on her now with disgust and a bitter kind of pity...

"Leave this place," she told the warlock. "It will be death to you and any of your followers if found within the bounds of Ashby Forest again."

Nikolai could not conceal his smile. What a beautiful twist the half-elf had inadvertently added to his plot... confusing Audra's memory like that. Her death threat went over his head completely, as unused as he was to taking any such thing seriously. After holding Rowena's gaze for a moment longer, he turned to look down at the defeated sorceress and allowed his smile to fade. "Help me get her up," he instructed Sahara quietly. He lifted his head for a brief moment and called out, in his unnaturally loud voice, "VANYA!" Then, without looking for Vanya's response to his summons, he knelt down and, with Sahara's help, lifted Audra's limp body in his arms...

Cat wasn't quite sure what was going on, but she'd be damned if she'd drop her guard now. She hefted the sword in both hands, wishing that there'd been time for her to learn to fight while wearing a dress. She glanced down and grimaced. Xanax wouldn't be half pleased--blood was spattered across the bodice and the skirt. Cat put herself back to back with Brother John, warily eyeing the fighters around her. Soldiers still skirmished with townsfolk, though the worst of the fighting looked like it might be finished. Still, one couldn't be too careful. She saw one fellow in a mail shirt stagger out of the melee. His gaze locked with hers, and he started towards her. Cat balanced her stolen sword as best she could, ready for the assault.

The small corner of John's brain which wasn't occupied with Rowena and Audra became aware of a person's presence close behind him. Somehow instinctively, he knew it was the same woman who had just saved him from the attack of a guard... for some reason, she seemed bent on protecting his back. He wasn't able to give proper attention to pondering why, or who she was... but that tiny little corner of his brain was curious...

With all her attention focused on Audra as it was, Rowena had barely taken note of what was going on around her. It was only when she heard the clash of steel so close that she let her awareness spread out around the room. She heard a stirring song, folk calling out her name, and others cursing them for doing so. The guards seemed hard pressed, by her own people, Antonio's, and others she assumed must have simply joined in the rebellion. Her lips twitched, half-smiling, half-frowning.
 
"Lay down your arms!" she cried, her voice ringing out to be heard over every other noise. "The battle is won. Your true Countess has returned to claim her birthright, and end the pretender's tyranny."
 
Audra stirred briefly, looking up at the man who carried her with confusion in her eyes. She wasn't quite sure where she was or what was happening, but her whole body ached, and she hoped he would let her lie down somewhere soon. Her eyes drifted closed once more...

Sahara clambered to her feet as Nikolai picked Audra up in his arms. Her right shoulder sat a little lower and more forward than her left, and she held her right arm wrapped around her waist to keep it from moving... but she moved close to the warlock and her mistress, and her left hand smoothed Audra's hair away from her eyes.
 
Rowena's attention returned once more to her enemies. "Vanya," she said, then changed her mode of address... "Chastity... you have family here who love you, and who have searched for you since you were taken as a child. Consider carefully before you leave in Rhodan's company... should you ally yourself with him, you may never return to this place. I pray you would stay here... let Gemile be the mother to you she always wished to be..."

Nikolai began to smile again. The halfling whelp was certainly overestimating her own powers if she thought she could win Vanya from him with a few sweet words. He stood perfectly still for several seconds, his faint smile fixed on Rowena, letting the silence speak Vanya's answer for her. At last he said quietly, "Come, Vanya," and began to turn away from Rowena...

There was no going back. She'd come too far down this path, and now, Nikolai was all the family Vanya would ever have. And were she to return to her life, she would certainly not know the love of a man after the way she'd been feasted upon. No good man would want her again. Vanya met Rowena's eyes and spoke softly. "Chastity is dead." She turned her back on the gypsy and the usurper to follow Nikolai.

 

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