“It looks like dirt,” Decharo said. “Dirt and sand. Mostly sand.”
The two boys peered into the bucket that held the first two ingredients which had been scrawled in the ancient alphabet that Tehveor had read. They stood with their heads close together, both dark, but contrasting in a picture that Shannondant decided she would draw later. Decharo’s hair covered his sharp cheekbones, but when she glimpsed his eyes, they showed with a brown warmth that made his ragged appearance feel safe.
Then there was Celestion. She’d expected the foretold prince to keep himself aloft, even from her. To walk a plane between Fate and other men. She hadn’t expected him to tease the workers, to wear the clothing of the Erish monarchs, or even for his eyes to catch the light and flicker into a piercing glint that made him look angry, even when he was laughing.
“Keep stirring it,” Tehveor said, before he rechecked the instructions and the shadows softened his iris.
Shannondant reached for the jar they had discovered together that held the unidentified dirt. She sifted her fingers through it, moving toward Decharo to compare the two powders. “I thought perhaps they were the same, but no. This dirt is too red to be that mixture.”
“Well, I suppose we could mix a bit with oil and see if it lights as well,” Tehveor teased.
“Do you think it will work?” Decharo asked.
“I don’t know,” Tehveor answered. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t if we’ve got the right interpretations. They didn’t write what it’s actually supposed to do after it is lit.”
Shannondant frowned as he reached for a bucket of oil, slowly pouring it into the mixture that Decharo stirred.
“If it’s oil, of course it will burn,” Shannondant said. “I don’t see why the additions are even necessary.”
“It’s growing harder to stir,” Decharo said. He pulled the wooden paddle up, watching the oil drop in globs. “It’s almost like making a candle.”
“But if it burns…” Tehveor trailed off, unsheathing his sword and dipping the first few inches of the blade into the mixture. He raised it, watching the drops run, then harden.
Decharo frowned. “Seems like it would dull the blade. And you couldn’t fight with such a thing. If it was forged in fire, wouldn’t it grow too soft?”
“I don’t know,” Tehveor replied. He swung the blade toward the Circle of Light, holding it above the flames until they leapt, igniting in a brilliant burst that made them all close their eyes and turn their faces from the heat.
When it burned down, Tehveor slashes it through the air, watching the flames shrink, then rise in victory.
“Your sword is flaming,” Decharo stared, sputtering, “I didn’t expect…”
Tehveor frowned at the tip. “It to be so easy? Anyone’s sword would if they dipped it in this. Try it.”
Decharo glanced around, then strode toward a poker which he thrust deep into the mixture.
“You could have an entire army of flaming swords,” Shannondant said.
The fire lit Decharo’s face, snaking up his rod. “Hot, hot!” He yelped, dropping the heating instrument, unaided by any protection of a hilt. Shannondant reached for a bucket of water, flinging it toward the fiery line.
Water sloshed across the iron, extinguishing the flames for a split second before they reignited on the surface of the water.
Decharo snatched the bucket of the flammable mixture and danced away from the flames, crying, “It floats!”
Tehveor glanced from his blade to the flaming puddle that crept across the floor. “Stay away from it!” he called, realizing he had no way to extinguish his own blade.
The fire burned high, like it had leaked beyond the borders of the Circle, defying nature and giving no signs of consuming itself. Tehveor snatched the ancient text that had revealed the secret and tossed it into the flames, eyeing the others as it curled into ashes that carried upward toward the small bit of sunlight that whisked the fumes from the chamber.
“Don’t speak of this to anyone,” he said.
“Why did you burn it?” Shannondant asked.
“I know it now,” Tehveor said. “Do you know what could be done with that if it fell into hands as cruel as His Majesty?”
Decharo blinked. “The Erish king couldn’t read it, even if Fate allowed him to find it.”
Shannondant frowned at the fear that flickered through Tehveor’s eyes as he glanced toward the entrance as though the king may ride through at any moment. “He’s already suspecting something,” he said. “He’s been trying to follow me. I shouldn’t even come in the daytime.”
Decharo wet his lip, exchanging glances with Shannondant. “The Erish king is not as strong as Fate,” he said slowly. “He is powerless inside of Sentarra.”
Tehveor gave no sign of hearing. He snatched his cloak from the floor, wrapping it around his blade and smothering the flame. Shannondant held her breath, but the flames snuffed into smoke that wisped through the blue weave. Decharo frowned further at the use of an Erish garment, but Tehveor’s sword was also forged by an Erish hand and when he drew the material away, the tip of his sword drooped toward the floor, weakened from the encounter with Sentarrian fire.
Tehveor frowned. “If this is how the Lasterine sword is supposed to flame, it must be forged differently.”
“Do you think that snake sword is the Lasterine?” Shannondant rolled her shoulders to loosen the chill. “It looks – evil.”
Tehveor frowned. “It looks T’erish.”
She pressed her lips together as Tehveor sheathed his weapon, giving orders. “Decharo, burn the rest of the mixture a little at a time with the logs. See if it extends their usefulness.”
Decharo nodded, then asked with a strained voice. “You’re going home?”
Tehveor hesitated. “Not yet. The circle on Shannondant’s map is in the wrong place to be the Light. I think it’s simply a miscalculation, but I want to check that there is not another room.”
“Do you want us to come?” Shannondant asked.
“No,” Tehveor answered. “Not this time. It’s far in the caves. I don’t think that Fate will punish me for venturing so close, but I don’t want to risk its anger on you until I know for sure.”
“Do you think it really lives there?” Shannondant asked.
“Yes,” Decharo answered quickly.
“I don’t know,” Tehveor said.
“What does it look like?” Shannondant sat up, glancing between their faces.
“Like a man in a cloak,” Decharo said. “I’ve seen it when I was a boy. Well, Gregorn said it was the man that Fate chose to speak through. He said Fate doesn’t have a set form and must choose a person if it wishes to interact with people.”
“A man in a cloak?” Disappointment crept into Shannondant’s chest. “That could describe any man here.”
“I didn’t see him well,” Decharo admitted, turning to dip a log into the mixture. “Just glimpsed him when I was replacing the torches. Gregorn said I ventured too close and could have been harmed, and then he beat me and told me never to go there again.”
Tehveor frowned as he swung the cloak across his shoulders. “What was the man doing?”
Decharo stilled. “Nothing. Just watching me.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go either,” Shannondant said.
“It was a long time ago,” Decharo countered. “I haven’t seen or heard anyone talk of seeing him for years. Since Tehveor came, certainly. And Tehveor’s his chosen one, so there’s no reason he should be harmed. If he doesn’t go today, there is no telling when the Erish king will allow him to leave the castle again.”
“Strange that you have seen Fate, and I haven’t,” Tehveor said.
Decharo dropped the log into the circle, watching it instantly consumed. “Not terribly. I’m here all the time, and you keep running back to the castle.”
Tehveor frowned at the barb. “I don’t have a choice. He’s already threatened that if Mother or I were to leave, he would search for us. I can’t risk him finding me here.”
“But aren’t you already?” Shannondant asked.
Tehveor swallowed. “Yes. Which is why, if I’m going, I should go now.”
“Tehveor…” Decharo broke off, dropping his eyes. When Tehveor turned, he hesitated, catching his own words and shaking his head. “Be careful.”
Tehveor nodded, then pulled the hood over his head and disappeared down the corridor.
Shannondant snatched the map, calling, “Celestion, you forgot…”
“He doesn’t need the map,” Decharo said. “He’s got it in his head.”
She frowned, glancing toward the ashes that Tehveor had created with the secret of the fire. “Heads are not safe places for knowledge. All it takes is one fall or fever and everything you know can be gone forever.”
“What are the chances of that happening?” Decharo asked.
“It happened to me,” Shannondant replied quietly. She rolled the map into a tight scroll as she spoke, “I can’t remember anything from before I was ten. I woke from a fever and didn’t even recall my name.
Decharo frowned. “I’ve never heard of a fever taking an entire memory.”
“But it did,” Shannondant said. “Something I think I remember bits, but they’re blurred and most of them don’t make any sense. Everything I know about Sentarra, I know because someone told me. I never saw my father, but I apparently had a mother until she died. I can’t remember anything about her.”
“I’m an orphan too,” Decharo said.
“You don’t remember your parents?”
“Never had the chance,” Decharo hurled another log into the fire. “All I remember before coming to Sentarra is running around cold and hungry in the Erish streets. Sometimes this woman would show up and she was kind, but she always went away again and I never found where she lived. Everyone else was cruel.”
Footsteps alerted them to the doorway, and Shannondant stood quickly. She hadn’t been forbidden to speak to Decharo, but he moved to his place near the woodbox, dropping his eyes and reminding her that he was a servant. Unwilling to cause him trouble by chatting without Tehveor to give them cause, Shannondant slipped into one of the passageways leading from the room.
“Decharo, where is Tehveor?” Gregorn panted for breath. “Setta has sent word that the Erish king has summoned him.”
“He’s not here anymore,” Decharo answered.
“Did he leave for the castle already?” Gregorn asked. “He didn’t bid anyone farewell, and no one saw him leave.”
Shannondant frowned during the silence that followed the question, and even more when Decharo replied, “He went out the back.”
Gregorn let out a slow breath. “Well, I suppose that is good. As long as he insists on living two lives, he must not raise suspicion.
“I don’t understand why he doesn’t come here,” Decharo said softly. “He doesn’t belong at the castle.”
“I know that. And so do you. And he will realize it soon enough,” Gregorn said grimly. “Perhaps even today if the king punishes him for failing to come immediately.”
Decharo stayed quiet and Shannondant bit her tongue, feeling suppressed questions bubble to the surface. When Gregorn left, she scarcely gave his footsteps time to fade before she swung back in. “Decharo, you know he’s not on his way home. Are you going to find him?”
“I don’t know where he went,” Decharo said.
“Well, you know where he didn’t,” Shannondant said.
“Fate will protect him,” Decharo said. He flinched before he continued, “You saw the influence the king has over him. He’s keeping Tehveor from doing anything in Sentarra, and he cannot become king until certain parts of the legend are fulfilled.”
“But Gregorn said he would be punished if he didn’t respond,” Shannondant argued. “And he won’t respond because he doesn’t know.”
“And if he doesn’t know, he will be doing exactly what he was meant to do,” Decharo answered. “And Fate will approve and protect him. But suppose he does know and runs back to the castle? Do you think Fate will be pleased with him then?”
“I think that should be his decision, not yours,” Shannondant said.
“He didn’t want the masters to know where he was going,” Decharo answered. “We’ll tell him when he returns. It’s that, or half of the people here will be stumbling around the dark in the back of the caves.”
“Or you and I,” Shannondant said. “We could go after him. He can’t be far. And we have the map.”
“He’s in Fate’s realm,” Decharo snapped. “If he needs to know, Fate will tell him. But he must stop choosing obeying the Erish king’s whims over his Sentarrian duties.”
Shannondant sighed hard, walking to the pile of unlit torches. She took two, dunking their heads into the mixture. “I’m going.”
His hand landed on her arm, the calluses scraping her skin. “Shannondant, please don’t go back there. Tehveor should be safe, but it’s not for the rest of us.”
She lifted her chin to glare at him. “I’m a princess, not a ‘rest of us’ and I’m willing to risk it.”
Hurt rose in his eyes as he flinched, then swallowed, subdued. He stepped back to his place against the wall and she felt something sting at her own rebuke.
But she lit the torch, gripping the map in her free hand, and moved through the least-used passages. The caves were dreary; a wash of brown and black and even the red or white that occasionally crept into the layers did little to offer the comfort of a meadow or the majesty of trees. She missed living above ground. She couldn’t blame Tehveor for his desire to leave at the end of the day.
Her feet slowed as she neared the end of the lights, igniting her own torch by the flame of the final light that marked the boundaries between men and Fate.
Her breath shook as she called, “Tehveor?”
Her voice echoed, reminding her of the danger of speaking too loudly in the chambers. Tehveor had a torch with him. She would just have to find that. Her own flame cast strange shadows on the rock formations that stood like giants, ready to guard their turf. She wished Decharo hadn’t spoken of seeing Fate.
Surely it was only his story that made her shoulders this tight, the cool drafts that raised the hair on her arms, and the disorienting darkness that made her peer for the eyes she felt on her.
Until she heard the footsteps behind her.
She swung around, brandishing the torch, willing it to be Decharo who had come to his senses and followed her to give aid.
“Decharo?” she asked, and her own words rang her ears before being swallowed into the expanse.
She forced herself to hold her breath, listening for another, but the caves were quiet. Where to go? Every step any direction may carry her away from danger or toward it. Back to light. Back to the familiar paths.
Hundreds of tiny clinks and the whoosh of material followed her with a swoop as sudden as a bird of prey. The torch was snatched from her hand, taking a sudden flight across the room. A hand clamped over her mouth, cold leather sticking to her lips.
“Shannondant, be still!”
Her name echoed in an unfamiliar whisper, bouncing off the cave walls. “I won’t hurt you, but you mustn’t scream.”
She closed her eyes, fighting the swelling terror. When he released his hand, she pulled away, spinning toward him, but finding her torch only outlined the hooded cloak. She swallowed, panting, “Where’s Tehveor?”
“Tehveor is safe,” the man said. “I have stalled him and he will continue no further. It is no accident that you have followed, for though the second princess has already proved herself as Tehveor’s protector, she has not yet taken her place and so you must act in her stead, fulfilling her duties as well as your own.”
“My duties?” she asked.
“You are to be my messenger,” the man said.
“Who are you?” Her question wobbled from her lips.
“You know that, already,” the man said. “Now listen. Tehveor has begun to believe lies that cause him to fear Fate. He does not realize that Fate is so intertwined with his own story, that when he resists it, he delays his own progress. If he were ever to try and destroy Fate, he would destroy himself. You must not let that happen. I speak this for your own sake, as well as the people of Sentarra. I will watch after you and Tehveor. I will guide you. But I can only do that if you obey me. Tehveor must trust me.”
“Perhaps he would if you did not keep to the shadows,” Shannondant said.
“For now, it must be so,” the man spoke. “He is just beyond us, in the chamber ahead. Tell him of the king’s summons, for his time to throw off the shackles has not yet come.”
“What shackles?” Shannondant asked.
But the cloak’s outline had faded into the darkness. She stumbled toward the torch, still burning against the rock and lifted it high. Wherever he had come from, he had gone, but she spied the dark hole of an opening that led to another chamber.
Her knees shook harder with every step toward it, but when she ducked through, the light outlined a maze of stalagmites and columns. She stepped closer, tripping over a spent torch that rolled in a semicircle in front of her foot.
“Tehveor?” she called.
She heard his response — little more than a whimper — but it was the bit of movement that caught her eye. Tehveor lay on his stomach, edging his elbow beneath him, but when he pushed against it, his arm collapsed.
She rushed toward him, holding the torch away from his body. “What happened?”
“I can’t move.” Fear weakened his whisper.
She caught his arm, pulling him against her, feeling him sag in her arms.
“He stopped you,” she whispered. “Fate told me he had stalled you until I caught up. The king is looking for you.”
“What?” Tehveor hissed. This time both of his arms went beneath him. His shoulder blades spread with the effort, but he lifted himself only an inch before he collapsed again. “Shannondant, I must return! He must let me loose.”
“Calm down,” she said quickly. “He said you needed to return. He said he would protect you if you obeyed him.”
“I’m trying,” Tehveor panted.
Shannondant set the torch to the side, grabbing both of his arms and helping him onto his knees. “Decharo should have come with me,” she muttered.
She looked for the man in the cloak, but if he watched from the shadows, he made no move to come to their aid. “I could return for the men.”
“No. No, they mustn’t come back here,” Tehveor said. “Just wait a moment. It’s coming back.”
She swallowed, shifting to sit beside him, but Tehveor must have remembered the king’s summons. His chest began to heave and he pushed himself onto his hands. “I cannot wait. Help me walk.”
She looped her free arm around his waist, steadying him as he dragged his feet. “What happened?”
“I can’t – talk,” Tehveor huffed.
Biting back questions, she held the torch aloft to find their path. Tehveor’s shuffles turned into a stumble and the stumbling into weak steps, but the darkness stretched onward.
“I don’t understand,” Shannondant whispered. “We should be at the borders by now.”
The ember was scarcely more than a glow, but it contrasted the darkness and she released Tehveor to edge closer, then hissed, “Tehveor. Someone has snuffed out the torches.”
Tehveor moaned, feeling his way toward her until his fingers brushed the walls. “I think I can find our way back toward the Light. We can get our bearings there.”
“What of the king?” Shannondant asked.
“The king will have to wait,” Tehveor replied grimly.
“He won’t punish you?” Shannondant asked.
The flame cast an angry glint into his eyes, but his voice held nothing except fear when he whispered, “I don’t know.”
Daton’s voice carried through the darkness, causing relief to swell in her chest. It lasted only a moment before he snatched the torch from her hand, rolling it in the dirt to extinguish it. “Put out your light! The king’s men are here.”
“Here?” Tehveor and Shannondant asked at the same time.
“They’re looking for Tehveor.”
Tehveor moaned and Daton’s head snapped up. “You’re here? Decharo said that you had returned already!”
“Decharo lied,” Shannondant said.
“They’re here because I’m here,” Tehveor panted. “Help me find the opening. I’ll draw them away.”
“Tehveor you can hardly walk!” Shannondant said.
“It won’t be the first time they’ve been sent to fetch me,” he said. “They won’t return without me. He’ll harm their families if they return alone.”
“But will he harm you?” Shannondant asked.
“No,” Tehveor lied. He must be lying, for he’d said before that he was unsure.
But Daton believed him, moving to his side and only hesitating before he touched him. “Are you hurt, My Prince?”
“No,” Tehveor said. “Only a little. I fell.”
Shannondant frowned but she walked just ahead of them, feeling her way along the walls. Daton whispered the turns with the ease of a man who had spent his childhood in these passages, but they moved with an agonizing fear, watching for the torches of invading soldiers and wincing at the darkness coming from the Circle Room where even Decharo had beat the flame into submissive embers.
“They followed your horse’s tracks,” Daton whispered. “They feared to come inside the caves because they had no torches. They sent back for them.”
“They won’t fear the darkness as much as the king,” Tehveor said. “I’ll go to them, but I can’t take the main entrance.”
“There are others,” Daton said.
“But what will you tell them?” Shannondant said.
“That I was cold and sought shelter from the wind,” Tehveor answered. “I’ll think of something.”
Daton squirmed, then said. “If you can climb at all, you can leave from the look out.”
“I can,” Tehveor said.
Shannondant gripped his arm, hissing, “No, you can’t!”
And the strange, silver eyes turned on her, glinting with resolve as he repeated, “Yes. I can.”