Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 60 of 69

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Alanna hauled herself up the cliff, clawing at roots and rocks as the route got steeper to stop herself from siding back down the scree. When she was high enough she turned, holding on to a rotting branch to steady herself as she drew a deep breath. Her lungs screamed in protest, and it took a few gasping attempts before she could shout loudly enough for the men to hear her.

"Don't give up!" She yelled, and pointed with her free hand towards the narrowing valley. "Run! Retreat to the…" she stopped and coughed as another wave of the poisonous smoke one of the mages had cast billowed in the breeze. Their flight to higher ground had stopped the gas from burning their lungs into the thick black fluid other soldiers were vomiting up in the camp, but every whiff of smoke still made the men dissolve into painful hacking.

The good thing, Alanna thought as she gasped for air, If there is a good thing, is that their soldiers were caught in it, too. That mage didn't care who he killed…

It was the only reason that most of her men were still alive. The ambush had weakened her lines, but Alanna had gathered three units of men into a defensive block, and they waited for the next line of organised infantry to break through the brawling survivors towards the pass into Tortall. Sure enough, with their uncanny knowledge of the local trails, the Gallans had emerged from the rocks and started to advance.

There were at least twice as many Gallan soldiers as there were Tortallans, and the blonde-haired men sniggered triumphantly behind their shields as they slowly drew forwards. In the front of their line, a captain with steel-grey hair was dragging something by a chain: a ragged man, manacles around his wrists, who stumbled but kept his feet.

The captain said something, and the man started laughing helplessly. He looked up at the Tortallans, and then at the Gallans, and raised a hand. The captain snapped his fingers, and the man winced as if he'd felt a static shock. Then he looked again at the Tortallans, and smiled thinly.

Yellow magic streamed from his hands and bled into the air. It was pure luck that the wind had caught the poisonous smoke just before it crept into the Tortallan line. The soldiers had watched in horror as scores of Gallan troops had doubled over. Blood bubbled and frothed at their lips as they writhed in agony. The captain screamed in agony and crumpled to the ground, his hand shaking as he reached out towards the slave. He whispered a word, and the slave howled and clutched at the chains that bound him in agony. The captain opened his mouth to shout something else and then vomited black blood onto the ground. He choked in it before he could even scream.

They could smell the stink of it. It smelled like death.

It had been all Alanna could do to command an organised retreat. The men were ready to flee in panicked terror. She'd cast a shield, which was glasslike and fragile as she drew from the last shreds of her own gift, and had ordered them to follow the line of it towards the cleaner air in the higher hills. Now they were regrouping, but completely demoralised. Alanna realised that the smallest thing might send them into a full retreat, and set her jaw grimly.

"That mage was a slave! A slave!" She yelled, repeating the word so fiercely that some of them stopped to stare at her. "You saw what he did! He attacked his own side! So what if he's dangerous? He doesn't want to kill you any more than he wants to be in chains!"

"There are so many of them!" One of the soldiers shouted back, terror obvious in his voice. "For every mage we kill, they get tens, hundreds of our men! We're being exterminated, Lioness!"

"No…" She started, and then started coughing again. Dark blood speckled the ground in front of her, but she ignored it. "Get… into the narrow part of the valley. We can defend it…"

"From that smoke? From the quicksand?" Another soldier demanded. He was bold enough to argue now that someone else had already done it. Alanna stared at him, half furious, half breathless, and out of the corner of her eyes she could see men diving away into the trees and running to hide. She wiped grimy sweat from her forehead with a hand that shook with weariness.

"We can't let them get any further into Tortall," She replied, and there was a raw honestly in her voice that made the dissenters silent. "We can't. We can trap them here. We can fight from here."

There was some agreement, but several of the men still looked surly. "We've no chance of winning!"

"But we can stop them…" Alanna persisted, but she didn't know if they could hear her any more. Fights had broken out between men in her own troops, some calling the others cowards, some accusing them of being besotted and seeking out the Dark God. She was too tired to try to stop them arguing. She'd used so much gift fighting the mages that she was beginning to feel dizzy, and she almost agreed with them. There were too many mages, and they were all too strong. She climbed down from the ridge, forcing herself not to reel dizzily when her feet met solid ground, and grimly started to run towards the bottleneck valley.

"What's that?" Someone yelled, and she drew a breath.

"Oh, what now?" She put her hands on her hips and glared. "We only have to hold it until the others realise the Gallans are trying to break through to Tortall, and then…"

"No, Lioness, there's…!" The man pointed at the side of the trail. Alanna barely glanced where he pointed, but that was enough to make her shout out her own warning and draw her sword. The cliff-side was black with silhouettes, as scores of people swarmed down the rocks. Around her, the men gathered into a defensive cluster, their own weapons out.

"Where are they coming from?" Alanna demanded, squinting up at the empty cliff face. "There's no trail…"

She scanned the skyline frantically, and then realised something. "That's… they're…!" She sheathed her sword with a bark of relieved laughter, and shoved one of the soldiers forward with jovial humour. "They're ours! It's the ambush party! They're alive!"

"I only see a few uniforms." One of the other soldiers muttered, not moving away from his own stance. Alanna shielded her eyes and looked more closely. The bright colours of Tortallan livery had caught her eye, but the soldier was right: most of the horde of people were dressed in brown and grey clothes that were more like rags than armour. They whooped and laughed as they slid down the cliffside, and shielded their eyes as if the afternoon sun was too bright for them. One of them skidded to a halt in front of the cluster of soldiers and ran her eyes over them critically.

"Well, who do we kill?" She demanded, planting thin hands onto ragged hips. She wore a Tortallan tunic over her own ragged clothes, and the vastly oversized uniform hung off her bony shoulders. Alanna blinked at her.

"Who the hell are you?" She retorted.

"I'm Pebbles. Named after the little rocks." The woman's slow voice was deliberately sardonic. "We're here to kill people. They said so. In exchange for letting us go free, we kill people. I don't like owing people anything. Neither do my friends. So, who do we kill?"

Around her, more of the ragged people were gathering, looking around them with dazed expressions. Some of them had their fish-pale hands clasped over their eyes against the sunlight, although they couldn't resist peering out through their fingertips at the scrubland of the valley.

"You're… you're slaves?" Alanna asked, feeling numb as she realised what was going on. The woman winked, and when she grinned her eyes burned dangerously.

"Not anymore."

The knight grinned back, showing teeth, and pointed down the trail. "They just witched themselves, but they're following us. We need to defend this position."

"Why?" The woman picked at her teeth with a blackened fingernail. One of the soldiers explained that it was the pass that led into Tortall, and she shrugged nonchalantly. "So? It's just a bit of soil with some other rich bugger's name on it. We're not here to fight for your stupid country. We're here to kill. Where are the officials, Red?"

Red? Alanna forced herself not to react to that. She was too tired and too relieved to feel as irritated by it as she should. Still, she had to force herself to smile, and pointed down the trail. Pebbles grinned darkly and nodded once, and then whistled through her teeth. As one, all of the slaves lowered their hands from their eyes and clustered around her, and then they started off down the path at a determined run.

"Dear gods," one of the soldiers breathed, "There was nearly fifty of them. Did you see…?"

"And all mages," Alanna echoed, feeling the odd weight of the power they were draining from the very air in the valley. "Fifty very angry mages." She raised her eyes to the sky for a moment, and sent a silent thank you prayer to whatever god had decided to smile on them. Then she turned to her men, and saw new determination in their grimly set faces.

"Well," she said, and grinned at them. "Let's go."


Daine's eyes flashed open.

"He's coming," she said, and she drew her knees up to her chest.

The old woman stared at her, but didn't ask who. There was only one person who scared the little wolf, she thought, and every prisoner in the pit said his name with that same vicious hatred. She lowered her wrinkled hand to the girl's wrist, and felt the tell-tale tingling warmth of the chain as magic ran through it.

"He's tracking you." She confirmed, and gently took the girl's hand in her own. "Be brave, pet. If he wanted to kill you he would burn you with that chain, not use it to find you."

"I know," Daine squeezed the woman's hand once and then let go. After her first waking flash of fear her voice had taken on a new determination, and she stood up and brushed some of the dank, mildewed water from her clothes. She glanced down, and helped the lady to her feet. "I think it's starting. The end of all this… this nonsense. Whatever happens, however it ends… it's not your fight. You should get away from here."

"No, do please stay where you are." The voice was clipped, but the order was pleasantly spoken. Daine shuddered and looked up at the man who had tried to throw her off the battlements, and forced herself not to react when he rested his hand heavily on her shoulder. Still, she couldn't help herself from gasping and flinching away when she felt the icy point of a knife pressed against the small of her back.

The old woman cackled an odd laugh, acting up for the official. In her pretence, her stilted voice sounding far more deranged than even Anja's had.

"You won't get no pleasure from killing an old crazy hag like me, Official." She made a rude gesture and then laughed again. "Wouldn't make you feel that big to cut short my young life, eh?"

"I wouldn't waste my time." He said impatiently, falling for the act. He dug his fingers into Daine's shoulders. "But you'll just about do for a messenger. Wouldn't she, my dear?" He smiled thinly at her bewildered expression, and then brought the knife around from her back to her stomach. Daine shrieked and tried to pull away as he drew a thin line of blood, wrapping his arm around her so she couldn't escape.

"There. So, first, what should we tell your beloved hawk?" He murmured into her ear. "How about: Lord Orsille is being very serious? Have I proved that, you little bitch? No, you're right." He shook his head at her silence and cut deeper. She cried out and nodded frantically. "Ah, she agrees! There, hag. So first, tell the hawk that I'm being serious. Now, what am I being serious about, I wonder? Any guesses?"

"Stop it, you monster!" The old woman struggled forward, trying to grab the knife away from him and slicing her fingers open on the blade. Daine shook her head tearfully at the woman, knowing it was hopeless.

"He just has to snap his fingers and we die," she whispered, "Is that it, Orsille?"

"Close." He shrugged and pressed the knife back against her stomach. "But I can't tell if the hawk cares about that. It's not good bait. Whereas this…" he looked up at the woman, and his eyes were icy.

"It's time to attack." He spat. "My mages have turned against me, my men are defecting, but I'll make sure that he won't. So you find the Hawk, and you tell him that he will attack before nightfall, or I will carve his bastard out of this whore’s belly and leave it rotting on a spike."

Daine whitened. "No…" she whispered, and didn't know if she was even speaking aloud. She saw the old woman reaching for her, but it was as if the world was slowing down. All she knew was her spinning mind, whirling through terrified thoughts.

He's gone mad. He's gone totally mad. And he knows… he knows that Numair will do it. And I won't be able to stop him… either of them…

Her legs shook under her, and she felt the burn of the knife cutting into her as she tried desperately not to faint. Orsille growled and shook her, and she could see his pure hatred for her in his narrowed eyes.

"Orsille... please, please don’t do this. You're going to kill me anyway." She whispered, knowing it was the truth. She felt a tear run hotly down her cheek. "Do it, but... But please don't…don't… don't make him be the Hawk. Don't…"

His voice was thick with hatred. "I'm so glad we finally understand each other, slave."


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 60 of 69

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